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Katie Sanders
By Katie Sanders January 12, 2014

Robert Gibbs says U.S. has been in Afghanistan longer than any foreign war in history

Liberal pundits are trying to defuse criticism of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy stemming from a new memoir by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

In the book, Gates writes that Obama "eventually lost faith in the troop increase he ordered in Afghanistan, his doubts fed by top White House civilian advisers opposed to the strategy, who continually brought him negative news reports suggesting it was failing," according to the New York Times, which obtained an advance copy.

Obama’s former press secretary Robert Gibbs argued on Meet the Press that Obama’s position is not surprising given his pledge to draw down the wars in his first presidential campaign.

"Look, Barack Obama was, and I assume continues to be, skeptical of our military ability to solve Afghanistan," Gibbs said. "We have been in Afghanistan longer now than we have been in any foreign land conducting a war in our nation’s history."

For this fact-check, we relied primarily on previous PolitiFact examinations.

The conflict in Afghanistan has been running for more than 12 years, since American troops entered the country in 2001.

The U.S. began its anti-terror military operations Oct. 7, 2001, about one month after the Sept. 11 attacks. Obama had planned for all troops to be out of Afghanistan by Dec. 31, 2014 -- marking more than 13 years of military there -- though a draft accord leaves as many as 10,000 American troops in Afghanistan indefinitely.

That’s longer than the major United States interventions in World War I and World War II. It’s also longer than the conflict in Korea, and both wars in Iraq.

The second Iraq war lasted for more than eight years. It began with a U.S.-led military coalition entering the country on March 20, 2003, aimed at finding Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Obama pulled out the last U.S. troops by the end of December 2011.

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The closest major conflict to Afghanistan in terms of length is Vietnam. The start date of the Vietnam war is somewhat fuzzy because it escalated slowly with the Eisenhower administration establishing a military presence in South Vietnam in the 1950s. However, most say the war started with the Tonkin Gulf resolution on Aug. 7, 1964, and ended either in 1973 or 1975 -- after about 10 ½ years.

So while Gibbs is on solid ground, there are a couple of things worth noting.

Gibbs’ measure excludes broader "wars." To reach the conclusion that Afghanistan is the longest foreign war in U.S. history, you need to exclude the 46-year-old Cold War and the presence of military forces in South Korea decades after the on-the-ground battle concluded. University of North Carolina historian Richard H. Kohn said in a 2010 interview that some might consider the conflict in Afghanistan part of the "war on terror." But by that logic, the wars in Korea and Vietnam also could be considered part of the Cold War.

The "Banana Wars" in Latin America in the early 20th century lasted longer but didn’t always include active fighting. These wars were not declared wars but "relatively quick-in-and-out interventions which kept happening over and over," said Max Boot, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power.

The goal was to preserve U.S. economic, political and strategic interests in various Caribbean-area countries, including Haiti, Nicaragua, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Panama, said Alan McPherson, a University of Oklahoma professor and author of The Invaded: How Latin Americans and Their Allies Fought and Ended U.S. Occupations.

The longest consistent military occupation was in politically unstable Haiti from 1915 to 1934. That does not translate to 19 years of straight fighting, though there were two short periods of wars that were "nowhere near the fighting we’ve had in Afghanistan," McPherson said. The U.S. military presence mainly ran the government. There were 2,000-3,000 marines in Haiti at the height of the U.S. occupation, McPherson said.

There were other significant informal wars around this time, including an eight-year presence in the Dominican Republic that saw the U.S. military taking over the government and dissolving the country’s parliament, as well as fighting a six-year rebellion in Nicaragua led by August Cesar Sandino.

Our ruling

Gibbs said, "We have been in Afghanistan longer now than we have been in any foreign land conducting a war in our nation’s history."

People can make different interpretations as to what constitutes a war. We take no issue with Gibbs’ interpretation but acknowledge that people might see the Banana Wars as the longest U.S. conflict on foreign soil. Gibbs is accurate, but his statement requires some additional context. We rate his claim Mostly True.

Our Sources

USA Today, "Afghanistan: America's longest war," May 28, 2010     

ABC News, "Afghan War Now Marks Another Grim Milestone," June 7, 2010

PolitiFact, "Schieffer's timely reminder on Iraq war has one problem," March 23, 2010

Defense Department, "Principal Wars in Which the United States Participated," accessed March 22, 2010

Congressional Research Service, "U.S. Periods of War," Jan. 7, 2010

Washington Post, "Robert Gates, former defense secretary, offers harsh critique of Obama’s leadership in ‘Duty’," Jan. 7, 2014

PolitiFact Inside the Meters blogpost, "A little more on the Iraq war," April 2, 2010

Time, "America’s longest war ... about to get longer," Nov. 18, 2013

Past PolitiFact interviews with historians, 2010

The Banana Wars: United States Intervention in the Caribbean, 1898-1934, by Lester D. Langley, 1983

U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian, "U.S. invasion and occupation of Haiti, 1915-34," accessed Jan. 12, 2014

Interview with Alan McPherson, University of Oklahoma professor of international and area studies and author of The Invaded, Jan. 12, 2014

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Robert Gibbs says U.S. has been in Afghanistan longer than any foreign war in history

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