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kabul
September 27, 2018
The Kabul Times

Afghanistan: 17 years of war and a culture of democracy

America’s nearly 17-year war in Afghanistan, the longest in our 242-year history, isn’t mentioned much in the news these days. We suspect that’s because U.S. casualties have dropped considerably since 2015, when President Barack Obama chose to scale back our military presence in the country rather than pull out entirely, as he had promised during most of his presidency.
Indeed, with U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan averaging about 17 a year since 2015 — down from a high of nearly 500 in 2010 — a surprising number of Americans are unaware the war is still being waged. According to a recent poll by Rasmussen Reports, 42 percent of likely U.S. voters were either unsure or didn’t know America was “still at war” there.
Some of that confusion likely stems from the Obama-era name change of the U.S. mission in the country. At the start of 2015, Operation Enduring Freedom became Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. Along with that change came a substantial reduction in troops — and later, promises from Republican candidate Donald Trump to pull out of Afghanistan entirely.
But last year, President Trump, like his predecessor, chose to maintain and then ramp up the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. The great majority of the roughly 15,000 U.S. troops on the ground there today — a nearly 50 percent increase since Trump took office — are there to train Afghan military and security personnel as part of what the Pentagon calls Security Force Assistance Brigades.
Along with the increase in personnel has come an apparent change in strategy by the Trump administration. As Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said during a visit to Afghanistan in March, the U.S. and its coalition allies are “working to achieve a reconciliation — a political reconciliation, not a military victory.” He went on to say that “the victory will be a political reconciliation.”
To that end, the administration has increased training of Afghan security forces and intensified aerial bombardment of Taliban-controlled territories and ISIS strongholds, even as it has signaled to the Afghan and Taliban leadership that a political reconciliation in which they work together to quell the growing ISIS presence in the country is mutually beneficial.
As part of this new offensive, U.S. forces are targeting the Taliban’s cash crop — poppies — which are used to make heroin and other narcotics. As Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told reporters in November, “This is not a war on drugs, this is a war on Taliban revenue.” These airstrikes, he added, are “allowed under the authorities that I was granted under the new U.S. strategy. I could not do that previously.”
Whereas Trump’s foreign policy elsewhere in the world seems to lack coherence, and even works against U.S. interests at times, his administration’s approach to Afghanistan has been focused and, dare we say it, productive.
In June, the Taliban accepted the Afghan government’s request for a three-day cease-fire during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan. During the cease-fire, Taliban fighters laid down their arms, peacefully entering Kabul and other major cities. Images of Taliban praying and celebrating alongside security forces and civilians soon went viral. Selfies taken by Afghan women alongside Taliban fighters were especially poignant, given the oppression and violence toward women condoned by many Taliban leaders.
Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Afghanistan and publicly instructed U.S. diplomats to engage in direct talks with the Taliban. At the same time, top U.S. officials have intensified pressure on neighboring Pakistan to stop providing a safe haven for Taliban fighters and commanders.
Last week, a senior U.S. diplomat reportedly met with Taliban leaders in Qatar for talks. The State Department will not confirm that “peace talks” are in progress, but spokeswoman Heather Nauert said it is the administration’s view that “if you can get a cease-fire that lasts a few days, perhaps you could get another one that lasts a bit longer, and that gives the people of Afghanistan hope.”
It would be Pollyannaish to say an end is in sight to a 17-year conflict in which more than 2,400 U.S. military and civilian personnel have given their lives. But we agree with Nauert: There is room for hope.
As Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States, Hamdullah Mohib, told our editorial board during a recent visit to Dallas, there’s a burgeoning culture of democracy and tolerance in the country. Of the nation’s 12 million eligible voters, 9 million have registered for parliamentary elections in October.
“We’d like to thank America — especially the people of Texas,” the ambassador told us. “We are a different place because of your support.” Just 18 when the war began, the ambassador spoke for his nation and his generation when he said, “America will always have an ally in Afghanistan.”
Dallas News

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