Attacks Reveal What U.S. Won’t: Victory Remains Elusive in Afghanistan

United States troops flying over Kabul in September. President Trump announced the addition of more American troops to the nearly 17-year battle in August.

WASHINGTON — The Taliban are in retreat, the Afghan military is on the brink of assuming control of the country, and the government in Kabul is one step away from being able to provide security across the land. So three successive presidential administrations have said over 16 years about the war in Afghanistan.

Yet devastating attacks on villages, convoys, government offices and hotels continue.

Three strikes over the past two weeks have killed 128 people, mostly civilians, in Kabul, the Afghan capital, alone. The latest came on Monday, when Islamic State militants stormed an Afghan military training base, killing at least 11 soldiers.

In coming months, the total number of American troops in Afghanistan will grow to an estimated 15,000. Nearly a third of them — 4,000 — will have been sent under President Trump’s new war strategy, which he is expected to promote during his State of the Union address on Tuesday night.

“We’re going to finish what we have to finish,” Mr. Trump told reporters Monday at the start of a lunch at the White House with United Nations ambassadors on the Security Council. “What nobody else has been able to finish, we’re going to be able to do it.”

But in a war that began with airstrikes and a few hundred Special Operations forces in 2001, and which later saw as many as 100,000 troops deployed, such promises have been heard before.

“It’s 2018, and there are young men and women now being sent over there who were literally in diapers when we first sent troops to Afghanistan,” said Will Fischer, a former Marine lance corporal who served in Iraq.



How Many U.S. Wars Equal the One in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is America’s longest war — 18 years. That’s longer than World War I, World War II and the Korean War combined.

“Good afternoon. On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against Al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.” That was the start of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. “We need the freedom to operate on the ground and in the air.” It’s now America’s longest war. About 18 years. Yet few battles or notable events from Afghanistan have taken root in America’s collective memory. And that means fewer signposts to mark the long passage of time. But if we look at how long it took to reach seminal moments in other wars, it might bring America’s 17-year presence in Afghanistan into clear view. We’ll start with the Battle of Gettysburg. This bar represents the number of days the U.S. has been fighting in Afghanistan. The fighting at Gettysburg began 811 days into the Civil War. Many consider this the most important battle of the conflict. And it took place after half the war was fought. Now apply it to Afghanistan time. It would bring us to just Dec. 27, 2003. There were about 13,000 American troops in Afghanistan back then. That number would eventually peak at 100,000. “In England, General Dwight D. Eisenhower and his deputy commanders chart the liberation of a lost continent.” Then there’s the Allied D-Day invasion at Normandy. One of the most iconic moments of World War II. The culmination of extensive planning in years of fighting in Northern Africa, Italy and elsewhere. That invasion began 913 days after America entered the war. In Afghanistan time, that brings us to just April 4, 2004. Hamid Karzai hadn’t even been elected as president of Afghanistan yet. And when World War II neared its end with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, that came after 1,339 days of battle. In Afghanistan time, that would reach to June 2005. Not even a quarter of the way through. Vietnam was America’s second-longest war. And the final pivotal moment was the fall of Saigon in April 1975. That occurred 3,706 days after U.S. Marines landed in Da Nang in 1965. And in a final comparison to Afghanistan time, that would bring us to Nov. 30, 2011. Osama bin Laden was killed about six months earlier. And President Obama had already announced plans to completely withdraw U.S. troops. He would later reverse that decision. The Obama and Trump administrations would unveil new strategies – continuing the fight, which goes on to this day.

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Afghanistan is America’s longest war — 18 years. That’s longer than World War I, World War II and the Korean War combined.

“We’re fighting the same battle over and over again,” Senator Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois and a veteran of the Iraq war. “Our troops are losing their friends, they are shedding blood, over the same patch of ground, over and over again.”

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, visiting Kabul in September, was quickly hustled to waiting helicopters for the brief flight to NATO headquarters instead of driving downtown on the harrowing roads from the international airport on the capital’s outskirts. The Taliban still fired off some obligatory rockets at the airport to welcome him.

Still, American officials insist that change is just around the corner.

“Looking ahead to 2018, as President Ghani said, he believes we have turned the corner and I agree,” Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr. told Pentagon reporters on Nov. 28, referring to Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani. “The momentum is now with the Afghan Security Forces.”

He would know. He is the latest in a string of commanders in Afghanistan, and he said the same thing a year before. “We are stabilizing what was once a deteriorating situation and have the international support to progress even further in the coming years,” he told the same group of reporters in December 2016.

Six months later, a truck bomb devastated a central area of Kabul near the presidential palace and foreign embassies in one of the war’s deadliest strikes. Some 150 people were killed and 300 more injured.

American optimism goes all the way back to Nov. 17, 2001, when Laura Bush, then the first lady, said the Taliban “is now in retreat across much of the country, and the people of Afghanistan, especially women, are rejoicing.”

At the time, American troops had been in Afghanistan for a month. And just days into 2002, Sgt. First Class Nathan Ross Chapman of San Antonio became the first American soldier killed by hostile fire, during an ambush in eastern Afghanistan.

Sergeant Chapman’s death would be followed by those of 2,215 more American troops in Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon’s most recent count.

Three months after Sergeant Chapman’s death, Condoleezza Rice, then the White House national security adviser, declared that “the Taliban regime has been routed.”

“Afghanistan,” she said, “has been transformed from a terrorist-sponsored state into a country led by people who are trying to create a better future.”

A year later, on May 1, 2003, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the main war effort was ending. “We’re at a point where we clearly have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilization and reconstruction activities,” he said of a conclusion by the United States, NATO and the Afghan government.

He called most of Afghanistan “secure.” Troops were still dying: Four German soldiers who were heading home that June at the end of their NATO deployment were killed in a suicide bombing on the way to the airport in Kabul.

But by then, the United States’ attention had turned almost completely to Iraq. American forces would soon be battling insurgents in gritty urban warfare that played out on television screens around the world. Afghanistan, and the Taliban’s resurgence there, receded from the national conscience.

As he was running for president in 2008, Barack Obama presented Afghanistan as the war the United States should be fighting, not the “dumb war” in Iraq. Still, days before he left office, President George W. Bush visited Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan on Dec. 16, 2008, to tell troops that “the Taliban is gone from power, and it’s not coming back.”

Except the Taliban had already returned. In July 2008, the group bombed the Indian Embassy in Kabul, killing 58. Nine American troops died the same month in an attack on a NATO base. And that August, the Taliban killed 10 French soldiers in the country’s eastern Uzbin Valley.

But American commanders were still predicting victory.

“The insurgency is not going to win in Afghanistan,” said Gen. David D. McKiernan, who was the top commander on Feb. 18, 2009, when he briefed reporters. “The vast majority of the people that live in Afghanistan reject the Taliban or other militant insurgent groups. They have nothing to offer them. They do not bring any hope for a better future.

“The insurgency will not win in Afghanistan.”

About the same time, President Obama authorized sending in 17,000 more troops. His national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones, promised in March to deploy an additional 4,000 Americans to train Afghan national security forces.

And by December, Mr. Obama agreed to a surge of an additional 30,000 troops in Afghanistan.

“It will be clear to the Afghan government, and more importantly to the Afghan people, that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country,” Mr. Obama said in a speech at West Point on Dec. 1, 2009. But he indicated that he would begin withdrawing troops in 2011.

The Taliban kept up its onslaught. Among other violence, military bases at Bagram and Kandahar were attacked in 2010 and a NATO convoy in Kabul was bombed, killing 18.

Still, on March 16, 2011, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the war’s commander at the time, said he was preparing to hand off responsibility for security operations to Afghan forces, given “hard-fought achievements” that he said had reversed the Taliban’s momentum in key areas.

On May 27, 2014, Mr. Obama announced that the bulk of American forces would head home. An estimated 100,000 United States troops were in Afghanistan at the peak of war operations; that number would dwindle to 10,000 under Mr. Obama’s strategy.

“It’s time to turn the page on more than a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said.

That was before the Islamic State arrived on the scene. In 2015, the extremist group rooted in Iraq and Syria marked its arrival in Afghanistan with a suicide bomb attack in Jalalabad, killing more than 30 people and injuring more than 100.

Not to be outdone, the Taliban soon after overran Kunduz — the first time the group had managed to take over a major city since 2001. Afghan government troops, backed by the United States, eventually wrested back control.

By the end of 2016, General Nicholson, the current war commander, said the United States’ support “sends a clear message to the enemies of peace and stability in Afghanistan, and the world, frankly, that they will not win.” Four months later, he ordered the dropping of the “mother of all bombs” — the most powerful conventional bomb in the American arsenal — on an Islamic State cave complex in the Achin district of eastern Afghanistan.

In November, General Nicholson delivered another bright update from Kabul. “The Taliban cannot win in the face of the pressures that I outlined,” he said on Nov. 28. “Again, their choices are to reconcile, live in irrelevance or die.”

The extremists chose a different option.

The Taliban launched a bloody 15-hour siege on a major hotel in Kabul last week, killing 22. On Saturday, at least 95 people died when an ambulance packed with explosives blew up on a busy street in the capital. And the Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack on an Afghan military base on Monday. At least 11 Afghan soldiers were killed.

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