U.S. Gen. John Allen, left, the outgoing U.S. and NATO- led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander in Afghanistan salutes with upcoming U.S. and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force commander in Afghanistan U.S. Gen. Joseph Dunford during a changing of command ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Omar Sobhani, Reuters, Pool)

Opinion: We owe our military a clear mission in Afghanistan

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama announced his plans to withdraw 34,000 of the current 66,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan within the next year.  This is in the context of the pending goal of removing all troops from that country by December 2014.  The Afghan defense forces have gradually been taking leadership responsibility from international forces after years of training from U.S. and NATO troops.

As a veteran myself, I understand and deeply appreciate the service and sacrifice our women and men in uniform make to ensure our security and support our nation’s policies.  And no one will be more grateful to see our troops come home than me.  However, at the same time, we need to make sure that the eleven plus years of blood, expense and efforts we have expended were not in vain.

In a recent press release, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said, “Since the President [sic] took the commendable step of deploying a surge to Afghanistan in 2009, we have known that our hard-fought gains are fragile and reversible.”  He made this statement noting that this is the assessment of both military and civilian experts. In an interview with the Daily Caller, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Forces Committee predicted that the U.S. may pay a “very heavy price” if Obama withdraws all forces in Afghanistan.  Making a comparison to the situation in Iraq, he said, “The whole place is deteriorating because we didn’t leave a residual force behind of any significant number.”

Therefore, the question remains.  After the withdrawal of 34,000 troops, with the rest due out by the end of next year–then what?  Many question whether the Afghans are ready to fill the gap and ensure the Taliban insurgents won’t take over.  The Karzai government continues to be among the most corrupt in the world, and opium poppy cultivation increased 18 percent in 2012 over 2011.  While the American people are wary of “nation building,” we also don’t want to have to go back into Afghanistan if the Taliban (and by extension Al Qaeda) return to power.

No decisions have been made, but officials in the Obama administration have said they are thinking about keeping a residual force of somewhere between 3,000 and 15,000 troops after December 2014 when most international forces will have left.  However, for this to materialize, the U.S. must finalize negotiations with the Afghan government on any American presence beyond 2014 in what is called a “status of forces agreement (SoFA).”  The U.S. government has said that the SoFA must contain immunity for our troops from prosecution under the Afghan legal system.  Presumably, the post-2014 mission would be limited to counter-terrorism operations, continued training of Afghan forces, and potentially intelligence and logistical support.  This seems to be a reasonable approach, but the scope of our presence must be spelled out very clearly by the Pentagon and the president.

If we have learned anything from our experiences in Vietnam and every conflict since, it is that our civilian leaders owe our military a clear mission, necessary resources and public support before committing them to deployments to dangerous environments.  I expect that most Americans join me in the belief that we should only put our troops in harm’s way when absolutely necessary and when they are they deserve our thanks, our support and our prayers.

Opinion: We owe our military a clear mission in Afghanistan  dannyvargas politics NBC Latino News

Danny Vargas, President of marketing consulting firm VARCom Solutions and Co-Chair for the campaign Juntos con Romney in Virginia. Former Commissioner, National Museum of the American Latino Commission, Former National Chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, regular MSNBC contributor, U.S. Air Force veteran raised in NYC.

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