Ghazi Balkiz / NBC News
Tech. Sgt. Rafael Melendez (left) of the 439th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron training Afghan forces on close quarters combat Wednesday at an Afghan Air Force base in Kabul, Afghanistan.
KABUL, Afghanistan — As American and Afghan officials continue to negotiate an agreement that would keep American troops on the ground in Afghanistan for years to come, Tech. Sgt. Rafael Melendez of the 439th Air expeditionary advisory squadron performs his job, unfazed.
A father of two girls from Columbus, Ga., Melendez is on his second deployment in Afghanistan. On this tour, his unit is tasked with training Afghan airmen on perimeter security and quick reaction procedures.
He believes their progress is good. “They can hold their own,” he said.
If all goes according to plan, Melendez, who is only four weeks into this deployment, could be back home in 11 months. But according to a draft of the Bilateral Security Agreement that NBC News obtained, U.S. troops could end up staying in Afghanistan for another decade, possibly longer.
Is Melendez concerned? Not so much. “I think every airman, soldier and sailor understands what they’re doing when they sign," he said. "If it comes down to it, we want to serve our country."
Master Sgt. Bill Hensley, a native of Ravenna, Ohio, on his second tour in the country, dismissed all the talk about the security agreement and its consequences. An adviser to the Afghan Air Force on air assists maintenance management — he'd set up shop in next to a huge aircraft hangar where two Afghan technicians were working on Soviet-made choppers — Hensley dismissed hand-wringing over an extended commitment in Afghanistan.
“I know there is a lot of conversation in the media about what may happen. I really don’t focus myself on that," he said. “My focus here is the mission, we still need to have a presence here. It's very, very important."
With the blessings of his family, Hensley follows his superiors’ orders. “My wife and kids support me, they know it’s a decision for me to be here, and they respect that and that’s all I could ever ask them," he said.
Hensley believes the U.S. should do whatever it could to secure the future of the Afghan people.
“I would come back again and again if that’s what it took to make Afghanistan sustainable,” he said.
Capt. Hazem, a member of the Afghan Air Force, said the agreement needs to be finalized for the future of his country — and fighting terrorism. "We need training, we need a lot of help, we need to gain experience from them — the Americans — to beat the Taliban," he said.
A veteran of the Afghan civil war, Hazem, 30, fought the Taliban alongside the Northern Alliance's charismatic leader Ahmad Shah Masoud, who was killed by al-Qaeda on Sept. 9, 2001, just two days before the 9/11 attacks that led to the invasion of Afghanistan to eliminate al-Qaeda and defeat the Taliban.
He fought the Taliban alongside American forces a few years ago, and now he is fighting them alongside his countrymen. Twelve years into America’s longest war, he does not believe that Afghan forces can fight the Taliban alone.
If American troops are not there to support the Afghans, Hazem says his country will face “a big challenge, and there will be losses."
First published November 20 2013, 10:03 AM