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Soldiers with the United States Army's 3rd Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment, collapse at the end of the day, during a two-day joint mission with the Afghan National Civil Order Police.
Veterans of the war in Afghanistan met the news that a draft security deal may continue the American presence in the country for years to come with echoes of military muddles past, worrying that a sustained U.S. force will only render a sandier, sunnier version of Korea, if not worse.
"I think Afghanistan has turned into the Vietnam of my generation, only with a better homecoming," said Brandon Webb, a former Navy SEAL who served in that land during 2001 and 2002.
"We still have no definitive and clear strategic objective on the table. Have we made a difference? You only have to look at the country and assess whether it will be better off after we've pulled out completely. Only time will tell but I fear we've done more harm than good," said Webb, editor of SOFREP.com, which covers U.S. Special Operations news.
Pulling out — what many Americans had expected in 2014 — appears wholly unlikely based on the draft of a pivotal U.S.-Afghan security deal obtained by NBC News. The document is a work in progress and is dated July 2013. According to that still-unsigned document, 2015 would mark the dawn of an open-ended presence by some 7,000 to 8,000 American troops who would operate bases to train Afghan forces and conduct counter-terrorism operations against al-Qaeda.
The working plan, shaped by hard negotiations from both governments and still subject to debate between village elders this week in Kabul, commits the U.S. military to "remain in force until the end of 2024 and beyond.”
"Did you say 2024?" asked Jeremy Hilton, a Navy veteran whose wife, Renae, an Air Force lieutenant colonel, served in Afghanistan. "We’ve already been there for over a decade. Our guys and gals shed so much blood over there, and you don’t want to simply pull out like we did with Iraq. We’ve seen the mess Iraq has turned into.
"But do we have the American public behind us [to stay another 10 years]? I just don’t see that we do," added Hilton, who earned 2012 Military Spouse of the Year honors for his advocacy work. "For us to continue to use military force without the American public’s backing seems like a mistake."
What size mistake?
"Look at Vietnam, for crying out loud. The military thankfully still has the public’s support," said Hilton, who lives in Virginia. "I'm talking about the danger of losing that."
"You stay as long as it takes to complete the mission but I'd rather not see Afghanistan turn into a Korea," said Brian Fleming, an infantry sergeant who in 2006 sustained second- and third-degree burns as well as a traumatic brain injury when a bomb-packed car detonated next to his military vehicle as each rode through Afghanistan. He returned to Afghanistan in March to speak to American service members.
Within some families of active duty members, word that thousands of troops may be cycled in and out of Afghanistan for another generation further dented their battered sense patriotism — spirits sapped by federal sequestration, the government shutdown, and the forced ends of military careers due to the planned shrinkage of U.S. armed forces.
Courtesy of Military Spouse Magazine
Navy veteran Jeremy Hilton with his wife, Renae, an Air Force officer who has deployed to Afghanistan. Here, the Hiltons show a book to their children, Kate (far left) and Jackson.
For a number of military spouses, a once unflinching, unquestioning support of the struggle in Afghanistan has softened as the conflict has become America's oldest war — one that now seems bound for an even longer haul.
"Our old perspective was that our husbands signed up for this, we just have to support it. But I honestly think for the first time, at least in my experience of being around the military for 15 years, we are war fatigued," said Bianca Strzalkowski, whose husband, a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant, returned in August from Afghanistan. They live in North Carolina. "Our opinion of supporting a war has shifted.
"When troops come home, they are not being given the things they were promised. Not the care. We’re not able to pay death benefits on time. So who would have trust to think our politicians are making the best decisions for them? I don’t," Strzalkowski said. "I don’t want to see my husband go to Afghanistan again, although I do grasp that is part of job. It's a loss of faith that the military community now has in our government."
Yet there are stray voices espousing hope for the future of Afghanistan, as long as the Americans stay. You may just have to go all the way over there to hear them.
"There's paved roads, there's traffic ... There's electricity There's water. The farms are green," said Air Force Maj. Dan Corindia, who deployed to Afghanistan in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2010 and 2011 and this year. "So, I have seen a lot of changes here in the last 10 years."
On Wednesday, Corindia navigated a C-130 as it flew from Jalalabad to Kabul. At the controls was Col. Amail Pacha, who has spent 27 years in the Afghan Air Force. The plane was a gift from Washington, D.C.
"When we are getting in the aircraft, our destiny is the same," Pacha said. "We need strong support from the international community — especially from the U.S."
NBC News' Jamie Novogrod contributed to this report.
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