Jim White already mentioned that Robert Gates showed up unexpectedly in Afghanistan today, just days after Hamid Karzai rejected an official apology from the military for the murder by airstrike of 9 boys collecting firewood in Kunar Province. The visit had two goals – one, to try and reconcile after the incident, and two, to assess the situation on the ground and what options the US could take after July, when a “transition” is timed to occur.

Unfortunately, this transition has already been overshadows by a separate date, a planned 2014 transfer of security responsibilities to the Afghans. But in remarks today, Gates let slip that even that deadline is soft:

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Monday that U.S. troops could remain in Afghanistan beyond the 2014 date set by President Obama to transfer responsibility to Afghan forces.

When asked about a long-term military presence while speaking to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Gates said that a smaller number of American forces could remain.

“Obviously it would be a small fraction of the presence that we have today, but I think we’re willing to do that,” Gates said, according to the Associated Press. “My sense is, they [Afghan officials] are interested in having us do that.”

Apparently, the US and Afghanistan have been negotiating a long-term security partnership, and while Gates clearly didn’t want to use the phrase “permanent military presence,” that’s pretty clearly what’s being discussed. Karzai, who’s basically the mayor of Kabul and has little influence outside that security perimeter, wants the US military to stay engaged beyond 2014 because his government would potentially collapse without them. So we’re staying in Afghanistan to prop up a corrupt leader who does not have the consent of his people. How has this become a national security imperative?

The “safe haven” argument usually gets trotted out at this point, that we must stay to deny a base for Al Qaeda. The US military has admitted that less than 100 Al Qaeda are currently in Afghanistan. Furthermore, with cells around the world, a focus on just that corner of the map to deny safe havens doesn’t make logical sense. Finally, this is mainly a prescription for perpetual war and occupation; there’s always the chance of establishing a safe haven anywhere in Afghanistan, so we always must keep a force available to stop that.

Gates has been praised of late for cautioning against more open-ended wars like Iraq and Afghanistan. But he certainly hasn’t shown any inclination to stop the wars that have already started. This admission of what amounts to a permanent military presence in Afghanistan testifies to that.