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One enormous bomb did not change the war in Afghanistan. Neither did one gruesome attack by the Taliban on Afghan soldiers as the soldiers finished their prayers—an attack so bloody that Afghan authorities ran out of coffins to bury the dead.
But together the two events have shoved a war largely ignored by American politicians and the public back into the spotlight. And now urgent questions must be answered about the near- and long-term future of the fight, for the sake of the U.S. military fighting the war, the American public funding the war, and the Afghan forces working to defend their country.
Time may have passed since the last interagency policy review on Afghanistan, conducted by U.S. President Barack Obama in 2009, but the questions in need of answers haven’t changed.
First, the United States must be clear about its goals in Afghanistan and how the United States, Afghanistan, and NATO countries can reach a shared understanding of what constitutes stability and success. During a 2009 visit to a NATO base in Afghanistan, an engineer working for Stanley McChrystal, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. forces in Afghanistan at the time, described some of the indicators they were measuring. Two days later, I was told that the U.S. embassy had its own indicators. It is likely that every other country’s embassy had yet more measures. And there was little to no coordination among them.
Second, it is time to define the enemy, whether it is the Taliban, Islamic State (ISIS), or both. The 22,000 pound U.S. bomb that dominated headlines last weekend targeted ISIS, not the Taliban. The move caused consternation among Afghans, who wonder why the United States is not as aggressive when it comes to battling the group that is killing Afghans in far higher numbers. The United States has been inconsistent about how it talks about the Taliban. In 2011, Vice President Joe Biden said “the Taliban, per se, is not our enemy,” even as American forces were out in the field fighting the Taliban. And just last week, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis made clear the new administration's view when he called the Taliban “this barbaric enemy” at a press conference in Kabul.
Third, there should be a discussion of how many troops are needed to accomplish the United States’ goals. In 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama announced a timeline for a drawdown while also committing more U.S. forces to the Afghan war. On-the-ground realities and advice from military leaders kept him from completing that drawdown. Today U.S. forces in the country total close to 9,000. John Nicholson, who commands U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has said that he faces a “shortfall of a few thousand” troops for the advise and assist mission. It is up to policymakers to figure out how many additional forces to provide and determine whether they would all be American.
Fourth, the allies need a plan to stem the loss of life among Afghan forces. More than 6,700 died in 2016 alone. That is about the same number of American forces who have died since 2001 in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. And it is a number that demonstrates the difficulty of fighting in a country where just 57 percent of the country’s 407 districts are under Afghan government control or influence, according to the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction. Taliban strikes last week at the Camp Shaheen military base reportedly claimed the lives of some 250 soldiers and led to a national day of mourning.
Fifth, there needs to be a plan for how the war ends. The Obama administration pursued a plan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. That turned out to be much harder to execute than expected. The Taliban opened and then quickly shuttered an office in Qatar that had been thought to be the start of a peace deal. In May 2016, the Obama administration carried out a drone strike that killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, an action Obama said marked an “important milestone in our longstanding effort to bring peace and prosperity to Afghanistan.” But it hardly served to bring peace talks closer to reality. Is a peace deal still the goal? And if so, how should military and diplomatic officials work together to make such an agreement possible?
Finally, it still remains unclear what the Trump administration’s take on Afghanistan is. No ambassador to Afghanistan has yet been named, and key state department positions related to Afghan policy remain unfilled. The current president has spoken little about his approach to the Afghanistan war. And the 2016 campaign, unusual though it may have been for many other reasons, was exactly like the 2012 election in that Afghanistan barely merited a mention.
But out of sight does not mean off the battlefield. And U.S. forces continue to fight, with special operations bearing a great portion of the risk. Sooner or later—and let’s hope sooner—those American forces and the country they serve will have a far clearer understanding of the future of their mission.