Remember Afghanistan? Trump's strategy is failing badly as Taliban gains ground

At least 200 Afghan security forces were killed this week as U.S.-led troops retreat before the Taliban

By Matthew Rozsa

Published August 17, 2018 6:00AM (EDT)

Security personnel arrived at the site of a deadly suicide bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 15, 2018. (AP/Salon)
Security personnel arrived at the site of a deadly suicide bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 15, 2018. (AP/Salon)

Remember the war in Afghanistan? It never ended, and now President Donald Trump faces harsh questions about what appear to be serious military setbacks in that perennially troubled nation.

At least 200 to 300 Afghan security forces have been killed by Taliban insurgents since Friday, awith the lower number reported by ABC News. (Other sources have reported greater numbers of casualties.) The first attack was an intricately coordinated effort by the Taliban to capture the city of Ghazni, 75 miles south of Kabul, the Afghan capital. Since then, U.S. military "advisers" and airstrikes have been deployed to flush out Taliban fighters from Ghazni's residential neighborhoods, with the violence only seeming to subside on Wednesday.

After the skirmish in the city of Ghazni, another Taliban attack occurred some distance away in Ghazni Province. This time the battle took place in Arjistan, a western district of the province, and 50 members of the security force were reported killed. Taliban casualties appear to be unknown.

In northern Afghanistan, Taliban fighters also killed more than 100 people during an attack on an Afghan Army base in Faryab Province on Friday. Even Kabul saw some violence, with a Shiite neighborhood victimized by a suicide bomb attack on Wednesday that killed at least 25 people and wounded at least 35 others. It is unclear what group was responsible for that attack, since acts of violence in Kabul aren't necessarily perpetrated by the Taliban.

Then there is this report from the Wall Street Journal on Thursday:

Gunmen attacked the Afghan intelligence service’s training facility in central Kabul on Thursday, a day after a suicide bomber struck a classroom full of students in the city.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which follows almost a week of high-profile assaults largely by the Taliban that have killed at least 311 people, mostly government soldiers and police. The Taliban’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, neither confirmed nor denied their fighters carried out the raid.

The Afghan intelligence agency known as the National Directorate of Security said that security forces killed two attackers aged between 18 to 20 years and armed with suicide vests and machine guns in a six-hour-long standoff. No casualties were reported among security forces.

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None of this bodes well for Trump, who promised a swift conclusion to the Afghan war when he discussed it during the 2016 presidential campaign. His administration had publicly suggested that his strategy in Afghanistan was working and would open the way toward peace talks that could end the 17-year war in that country.

"To me, it simply means a continuation of their willingness to put innocent people in harm's way," Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said about the Taliban attacks, speaking during his visit to South America. "There's nothing new. It's the usual endangering of civilians, part and parcel of what they’ve done for the last 20 years."

CNN's Nick Paton Walsh had a somewhat harsher assessment:

Just consider this incomplete précis of the past six days.

The Taliban stormed into the strategic city of Ghazni on Friday, ultimately killing hundreds over at least four days of intense urban fighting and undermining the Afghan security plan of focusing on keeping population centers safe.

On Tuesday night, 39 soldiers died in Baghlan province when the Taliban overran their base. And 17 troops were also killed when their base in Faryab was also overrun.

On Wednesday, dozens died when a Shia education center was hit by ISIS. Dozens apparently also died when airstrikes hit an insurgent target in Farah.

On Thursday, gunmen attacked a training center for the Afghan intelligence service.

Yet, despite this being the singular foreign policy issue that President Trump has personally delineated a lengthy strategy on, the White House has not appeared dismayed.

When asked, spokeswoman Sarah Sanders did not comment directly on Ghazni. The White House remains "committed to finding a political solution to end the conflict in Afghanistan," she said, and is "going to continue to review and look at the best ways to move forward."

Afghanistan has gone from being a Forgotten war, to the Ignorable one. Look at the list above and ask: exactly what has to happen to cause a sharp intake of breath?

Much of the answer to Walsh's question can be found in the simple fact that Americans simply aren't paying attention to Afghanistan anymore. Democrats are focused on Trump's alleged collusion with Russia and hopes for retaking Congress in November; Republicans are defending the president and lauding the continuing strength of the economy. Neither party has any incentive to discuss an endless military campaign that looks increasingly like an expensive failure.

Even in the realm of foreign policy, America's troubled relationship with North Korea, burgeoning trade war with China and, of course, the increasing tensions with Russia all seem more important. If Americans haven't literally forgotten that we're still fighting a war in Afghanistan, it often feels that way. As this week's news makes clear, the Afghan people have no such luxury.

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Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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