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There’s no stopping the United States’ forever war


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Army Spec. Gabriel D. Conde, 22, was a child when his nation invaded Afghanistan in 2001. This week he became the latest American casualty in the ongoing war there. According to Pentagon officials, Conde was hit by enemy gunfire while participating in a counterterrorism mission in a district east of Kabul, making him the second American service member killed in Afghanistan this year. More than 2,400 Americans have died during the war, as well as tens of thousands of Afghan civilians.

Afghanistan’s chronic insecurity — and the inability of the country’s political leaders and their international backers to broker a lasting peace — was on gruesome display over the past 10 days. While Conde was on his ill-fated deployment, twin bombings in Kabul killed 31 people, including 10 journalists. A week prior, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives outside a voter registration center in the city, killing at least 57 people and raising anxieties over the viability of upcoming elections. This follows a year in which suicide attacks doubled and sectarian attacks tripled in Afghanistan.

This week also marked seven years since the United States killed Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda mastermind whose attacks provoked the 2001 intervention against the Taliban. But for all the blood spilled, money spent and bombs dropped, Washington looks no closer to finding a way out. Though President Trump resents the drain on manpower and resources that the war represents, his administration committed more than 15,000 troops to the country in a bid to help the flagging Afghan government. But, as my colleague Pamela Constable reported, there is little sign of progress.

A new Pentagon report showed that the ranks of the Afghan military and police forces, which U.S. troops are tasked to support and train, are dwindling. The paper also detailed how billions of dollars in American aid have been squandered, the toll of widespread and rampant corruption in the country, and the extent to which the government in Kabul is floundering.

“Only a starry-eyed optimist can seriously suggest that the new plan is going well,”  Michael Kugelman, a specialist on Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said to Constable. “There are few indications that a ramped-up training mission and battlefield fight are turning the tide in the war. So long as the Taliban believes it is winning, it is unlikely to agree to peace talks, no matter how generous the offer. And let’s be clear — the Taliban very much thinks it is winning.”

That’s an unfortunate conclusion in the best of times. Under President Trump, who has shown little interest in the hard diplomacy needed to stabilize the country, it sounds even worse. Analysts argue that further pressure needs to be exerted on regional powers such as Pakistan, whose notorious Inter-Services Intelligence, a military spy agency, has long abetted militancy across the Afghan border.

“The most rational course,” Steve Coll, a veteran chronicler of South Asia’s wars, wrote this year, “is one for which President Trump would seem poorly suited: to work closely with allies, prioritize high-level diplomacy, be smart in pressuring the Inter-Services Intelligence and accept that in Afghanistan, a starting point for any international policy is humility.”

But Trump and his lieutenants are more inclined to swagger on the international stage than stay humble. Trump has championed American hard power and his ability to launch punitive missile strikes on enemy targets, be they militant redoubts in Afghanistan or the airfields of the Syrian regime.

Under his watch, coalition forces unleashed a relentless air campaign against the Islamic State, pulverizing the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa. Months later, volunteers are still digging bodies out of the rubble, while rights groups point to an untallied civilian death toll that may number in the hundreds, perhaps thousands. Though the administration declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq (again) this week, the battle to win the peace may be the tougher fight.

In Congress, Trump’s bellicosity has sped a bipartisan effort to curtail the president’s war powers. But critics of the proposed legislation warn this is a misguided endeavor that may actually grant Trump greater freedom to enter new conflicts.

“It would authorize the use of military force against the groups the United States is currently fighting, in the countries where we are fighting now. But it would not limit the conflict to those groups or countries,” wrote Elizabeth Goitein of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law. “Instead, the president could add new groups that he determined were ‘associated’ with the listed groups. And while the bill would not authorize the president to add nation-states to the list, it would permit an easy runaround: by characterizing strikes on countries where terrorists operate — or like Iran, are designated as state sponsors of terrorism — as sanctioned attacks on terror groups.”

Meanwhile, ordinary Afghans continue to live and die in the shadow of an endless American war.

“I watched the September 11 attacks on the BBC, not thinking for a second that there would be possible repercussions for Afghanistan,” Shah Marai, Agence France-Presse’s chief photographer in Kabul, wrote in a blog post in 2016. What hope he had for his country after the toppling of the Taliban government vanished in the face of a brutal insurgency that fed off the American occupation and local misgovernance.

“Life seems to be even more difficult than under the Taliban because of the insecurity.  I don’t dare to take my children for a walk,” Marai wrote. “Every morning as I go to the office and every evening when I return home, all I think of are cars that can be booby-trapped, or of suicide bombers coming out of a crowd … I have never felt life to have so little prospects and I don’t see a way out.”

On the day that Conde, the young American soldier, was slain, Marai was one of the journalists killed in Kabul by a suicide bomber.

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