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Eleven years ago today, U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. . There are still 68,000 American troops serving in Afghanistan. The war hasn't been a major issue in the presidential campaign and polls show American voters are tiring of the war. But the next commander-in-chief will find the Afghan War among the most difficult of many foreign policy challenges.
This morning, as part of our election year series Solve This, NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman reviews the candidates' positions on a war now entering its 12th year.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Here's the problem: How does a president bring the war in Afghanistan to an end? Both President Obama and Governor Romney appear to agree on a date: The last day of December, 2014. That's when the Afghan security forces are scheduled to take responsibility for their own country.
Here's the president, speaking at an American base in Afghanistan back in May.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And as our coalition agreed, by the end of 2014, the Afghans will be fully responsible for the security of their country.
BOWMAN: That's what the NATO coalition approved. And Governor Romney picked up on that when he addressed the National Guard Association last month.
MITT ROMNEY: Our goal should be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014.
BOWMAN: But listen carefully. President Obama, like fellow NATO leaders, sounds definitive. He says the Afghans will be fully responsible by the end of 2014. Governor Romney says it's a goal to turn over security to Afghan forces by that time. Governor Romney says he wants to listen to American military commanders in Afghanistan first, and then determine the way ahead.
Here he is again at the National Guard Association Convention in September.
ROMNEY: We should evaluate conditions on the ground and solicit the best advice of our military commanders. We can all agree that our men and women in the field deserve a clear mission; that they deserved the resources and resolute leadership they need to complete that mission; and that they deserve a country that will provide for their needs when they come home.
BOWMAN: Governor Romney's campaign website offers a little more information, under the heading Afghanistan and Pakistan. The governor says he'll review the transition to the Afghan military. That assessment, plus conditions on the ground, says Governor Romney, will determine the level of troops and money needed to, quote, "secure our gains and to train Afghan forces."
Which brings up another challenge for the candidates: How many American troops will remain after 2014. President Obama says that while the U.S. combat mission will end in December 2014, not all American troops will be coming home. That's because the president signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai back in May. That 10-year agreement says the U.S. will help target al-Qaida and train Afghan troops.
Here's President Obama again, speaking in Afghanistan back in May, describing that agreement.
OBAMA: We'll work with the Afghans to determine what support they need to accomplish two narrow security missions beyond 2014 - counterterrorism and continued training.
SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: Well, the most important point is that we're not going anyplace.
BOWMAN: That's Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, right after the agreement was signed.
PANETTA: We have an enduring presence that will be in Afghanistan. We'll continue to work with them on counterterrorism. We'll continue to provide training assistance, guidance. We'll continue to provide support.
BOWMAN: An enduring presence in Afghanistan. Romney advisors say that's what the governor wants too, but the governor hasn't been as specific about what that presence will look like. Military commanders, for their part, are considering 10,000 or more troops. So whoever becomes president will be faced with that question. How many U.S. troops will be needed in Afghanistan for the training and counter-terror mission well into the future?
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.
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