This is the 14th year that American military personnel — about 10,000 people — are involved in Afghanistan, guiding, training and equipping local units to fight the Taliban and terrorist groups. Just a few years ago, we had 140,000 U.S. troops running that complicated civil war.
It is the 12th year that U.S. troops are in Iraq, with about 3,500 advising, training and equipping local units that are taking on Islamic State fighters. Eight years ago we had 170,000 soldiers dealing with Iraq's internal insurgents.
For those who compare this to the longtime continuing U.S. troop presence in Germany, Japan and South Korea, it should be noted our forces in those countries are there to deter threats or invasion from outside powers, not to prevent insurgents from overthrowing the host governments.
This also is the second year that U.S. aircraft have been dropping bombs in Syria on Islamic State targets — but not hitting units of the Syrian government, which is fighting to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his supporters in power.
Last month, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, frustrated with his view of the Obama administration's passive Middle East policies, called for a step-up in U.S. military involvement in the area. Specifically, he wanted the American military "to put an end to Assad's ability to use airpower against his people ... help establish safe zones inside Syria," and, "while no one believes that we need to invade Iraq or Syria, the fact is that we will likely need additional U.S. Special Forces and military advisers to be successful."
Last week, McCain joined other Obama critics in citing the boldness of Russian President Vladimir Putin's sudden introduction of his air and ground forces into the Syrian fighting. McCain called Putin's military intervention in the Middle East "historically unprecedented," discounting, apparently, the Soviet aid to Egypt and Syria in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and Moscow's continuing military support of the Assad family since that time.
McCain described Putin's move "as another humiliating setback for the United States" and said, "We should expect Russian troops to take the field with (Assad's troops). We should also not be surprised if Putin expands his anti-American coalition's operations into Iraq, where they have already established an intelligence partnership with Baghdad."
Ignored by McCain was Putin's need to prop up Assad, Moscow's only Arab ally, and protect Russia's naval base at Tartus from rebel advances. Also missing was Putin's recognition that thousands of Russian Chechens fighting with the anti-Assad forces could become a threat to him when they return home.
To see what a quagmire the United States could fall into should Washington broaden its limited role in the Syrian civil war, look how deeply this country is involved after years of effort in Afghanistan as described to the House Armed Services Committee last Thursday by Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan.
The United States has lost more than 2,200 dead and more than 20,000 wounded through military actions in Afghanistan. Through this fiscal year, the Bush and Obama administrations have spent at least $700 billion on this war, and billions more will be needed in the future.
There are about 10,000 American service personnel in Afghanistan, about 1,300 working on training, advising and assisting Afghan security forces. The Afghans handle basic training of their forces. But they don't have sergeants or non-commissioned officers, and they don't have company commanders. "We're trying to build that. That's the backbone of all our services," Campbell said.
When it comes to other areas where they have little expertise, such as maintenance and growing their air force, "that's where we continue to do the train, advise and assist," Campbell said.
This fiscal year, the United States provided $4.1 billion to support, along with other coalition members, the 325,000 members of the Afghan security forces. Another $4.8 billion is budgeted for next year.
Campbell explained that the United States has learned that spending must continue for the foreseeable future because the Kabul government cannot afford to pay for its own security forces.
Are the American people prepared to take on similar responsibilities in Syria, yet another dysfunctional Middle East country? Remember Colin Powell's quote about Iraq: "When you break it, you own it."
Talk is easy when it comes to intervening abroad. The devil, as usual, is in the details.