Editorial: Sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan requires a clear purpose

Vehicles burn after a deadly suicide attack in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. Attahullah Khogyani, spokesman for the provincial governor said a group of gunmen stormed the office of the non-governmental organization, Save the Children. (AP Photo) JAB102
Vehicles burn after a deadly suicide attack in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. Attahullah Khogyani, spokesman for the provincial governor said a group of gunmen stormed the office of the non-governmental organization, Save the Children. (AP Photo) JAB102
Published January 26

The deadly weekend terrorist attack on a major hotel in Kabul shows the deteriorating state of security even after 16 years of war in Afghanistan. The Trump administration, which is poised to send additional U.S. troops to the country this spring, needs to explain how this expanded role and a new approach to training Afghan forces will change the equation on the ground and the prospects for a peace deal.

At least 22 people, including 14 foreigners — among them Tampa native Glenn Selig, a former reporter for Tampa’s Fox 13 News — were killed during the 13-hour weekend siege that began late Saturday after Taliban attackers stormed the Intercontinental Hotel in the capital city of Kabul. Survivors told harrowing tales of hiding in locked rooms as the gunmen went door to door, setting fire to the hotel after they used up their ammunition.

More than 150 people were rescued or managed to escape. But many at the scene said Afghan security forces waited too long to retake the building. Whatever the case, this brazen attack on a luxury hotel that is widely popular with Westerners and Afghan officials shows the depth of the security breakdown in the country. About 50 people were killed elsewhere across Afghanistan during the same 24-hour period over the weekend, reflecting the violence and political instability that has become a fact of daily life.

Other hotels have been attacked throughout the war, but the assault on the government-owned Intercontinental reveals the weak grip and standing the authorities have even in the large urban centers. The Afghan police and security services seem to be falling behind against the Taliban, despite more than a decade of war and an ongoing American military training mission that is hampered by corruption in the Afghan ranks, high turnover in the military and divided loyalties among the population.

The Washington Post reported Monday that the U.S. Army is readying plans to deploy 1,000 additional troops this spring to augment the 14,000 American service members already serving in Afghanistan. Officials said the expanded force is part of a new U.S. strategy to bolster Afghan forces in advance of the spring fighting season. A new approach that President Donald Trump approved in August would push U.S. adviser teams much closer to the front lines, with the goal of better coordinating the Afghans’ fight against the Taliban on their preferred ground in the remote areas. While Trump has voiced concerns that the conflict has reached a stalemate, he also has increased U.S. troop levels and loosened restrictions on U.S. airstrikes in an effort to break the impasse.

The Pentagon has said that the additional U.S. firepower could enable the Afghan government to take control of 80 percent of the country in the next two years, up from 65 percent today. That’s an ambitious goal and timetable, given the Taliban’s military and political reach, the fundamental problems of endemic corruption and incompetence in the Afghan government, and the sclerotic pace of democratic reform and social justice in the country. The Trump administration has also aggravated tensions with Washington’s nominal ally in the region, Pakistan, over Pakistan’s refusal to rein in Taliban fighters along the border and to cut the group’s access to intelligence and foreign financial aid.

The White House has left the military strategy in military hands, but it’s time the president explained how the additional troops will provide a turnaround in this military mission. There is no reason to believe a game-changing strategy is at hand, or that the Afghan government is prepared to take the next step by laying the foundation for peace. Any new deployment must have a chance of ending the stalemate and pushing all sides toward national reconciliation. There’s no use in merely prolonging the status quo.

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