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Afghanistan’s bloody week shows how U.S. policy there is failing

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On Saturday, a suicide bomber packed a fake ambulance with explosives, drove to a hospital in central Kabul and set off an explosion that rocked the Afghan capital. At least 103 people were killed and 235 wounded. The attack, claimed by the Taliban, was one of the deadliest in the country's history.

It was also the third major attack in Afghanistan in a week. Last Monday, 22 people died when Taliban fighters stormed the Intercontinental, a tightly guarded luxury hotel in Kabul, and sparked a firefight that lasted more than 14 hours. Just days later, an assault by the Islamic State on the Jalalabad office of British charity Save the Children left at least four people dead. The organization has since suspended all operations in the country.

And that wasn't all. On Monday morning came yet another attack, this time on an Afghan army base near Kabul. The BBC reported that at least two soldiers were killed.

The unrelenting violence underscores the frustrating reality in Afghanistan: Despite more than 16 years of fighting by the U.S.-led coalition and Afghan security forces, the Taliban and other terrorist groups are again growing stronger.

In the years since they toppled the Taliban in 2001, U.S. and Afghan forces have struggled to dismantle the terrorist group's networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Today, the Taliban controls about a third of Afghanistan, more territory than at any point since the U.S. intervention; it has gained a foothold in areas like Babaji and Marjah that coalition troops fought hard to defend; and it has launched high-profile attacks in major cities, creating a sense among Afghans that no one is safe.

As Krishnadev Calamur wrote for the Atlantic, “the group’s resilience and the apparent ease with which it continues to strike at the heart of the Afghan state underscores the challenge its government faces in bringing stability to the country, even as U.S. military support is set to increase under President Donald Trump.”

Meanwhile, that government is fragile and fractured. President Ashraf Ghani presides over a coalition plagued by rivalries and in-fighting. Corruption is rampant. One poll, from July 2017, found 61 percent of Afghans believe the country is moving in the wrong direction.

So it's perhaps no surprise that other terrorist groups have gotten a foothold in Afghanistan as well. The Islamic State has launched several attacks on foreigners and Afghanistan's Shiite minority. The group claimed responsibility for at least 15 bombings in Afghanistan in 2017, up from just a couple in 2016. “ISIS has lost land, but has not surrendered its arms, and is looking for land in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia to, in this way, revive the idea of the Islamic caliphate,” Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi said at Tehran’s Seminar on Terrorism, Extremism and Regional Security in West Asia in December.

U.S. policymakers are not blind to this problem. Since taking office, President Trump has increased the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan from 8,500 to 14,000 — and, as my colleagues reported last week, the U.S. Army is preparing to send up to 1,000 more. Those soldiers would be sent to smaller commands in some of the most violent and remote parts of the country, Pentagon sources said, putting them far closer to the fighting than is currently the case.

But those new troops will likely have little impact on the security situation. Afghanistan's own security forces are weak and understaffed — some 10,000 of them died in fighting over the last year. Meanwhile, daily life has become nearly impossible for large swaths of the country. Unemployment is chronic, basic services are in disrepair and least 10 civilians died each day in 2017 as a result of fighting. Aid groups are pulling out or significantly shrinking their operations.

As Michèle Flournoy, a top Pentagon official during the Obama administration, put it to the New York Times: “The 3,000 to 5,000 may prevent a near-term backsliding, but it is not going to be decisive in turning the tide of this war.  The administration needs to accompany any troop increase with a new political and economic strategy to help the Afghans achieve greater stability.”

The very announcement of an expanded U.S. presence in Afghanistan resulted in an uptick in violence. In a statement after Saturday's attack, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid drew a direct link between the increase in U.S. troop levels and the hospital bombing, calling it “a clear message for Trump and his hand kissers that if you go ahead with a policy of aggression and speak from the barrel of a gun, don’t expect Afghans to grow flowers in response.”

Despite all that, no one expects the Taliban to fully retake Afghanistan. As Seth G. Jones wrote in Foreign Affairs, the group's ideology is too extreme for most Afghans, and its reliance on brutal tactics has made it unpopular in the country and overdependent on foreign allies. One national poll found just 4 percent of Afghan voters hoped to see the Taliban return to power.

“The weaknesses of both the Taliban and the current Afghan government suggest that a stalemate is the most likely outcome for the foreseeable future,” he argued. “Territory may change hands, although probably not enough to tip the balance in favor of either side.” Nor will that stem the violence. As Jones wrote, “the group has the ability to continue waging an insurgency for the foreseeable future.”

U.S. officials seem to be paying little attention to such warnings. Shortly after Saturday's bombing, Trump reiterated his “resolve” to see the struggle through, saying “the United States is committed to a secure Afghanistan that is free from terrorists.” Gen. Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. Central Command, told reporters just hours after the attack that victory is “absolutely” still possible in the country.

But their confidence can't quite obscure the obvious: The president and his generals still can't offer any real sense of what a win in Afghanistan might look like or how we might get there. And, as ever, Afghans are futilely waiting for American leaders to figure out the answers.

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