Even by the grim markers of the 16-year war, last week's car-bomb attack in the Afghan capital of Kabul, which killed at least 90 people, was a grave and stunning setback in the fight against global terror. Coming as strains are appearing in the Trump administration's relations with America's NATO partners, the attack underscores the west has few good options in improving Afghan security over even the short-term, raising the stakes for continuing a military presence that helps feed the insurgency. The Trump administration needs to consider carefully what could reasonably be accomplished by sending up to 5,000 additional U.S. troops to the country, because a compelling case has yet to be made that the return on the investment of money and American lives would be worth the risk.
The explosion occurred Wednesday morning at the peak of Kabul's rush hour in a highly secure area of the capital that is home to many embassies and Afghanistan's presidential palace. The blast wounded more than 460 people, including at least 11 Americans and several foreign diplomats. It also damaged the embassies of Germany, China, France and at least three other countries.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, and the Taliban initially insisted it was not behind the attack. Still, the sheer size of the explosion and the bombers' ability to move freely in one of the most heavily guarded areas of the capital underscores the militants' organization and the inability of the security forces to control the territorial heart of the Afghan central government.
The United States already provides the bulk of the international force assisting the Afghan army, about 8,400 of the 13,000 troops. The White House is considering a Pentagon request to send 3,000 to 5,000 additional personnel, including special operations forces, to further train and assist the Afghans, putting U.S. troops closer to the fighting in an effort U.S. commanders say is aimed at breaking the military stalemate and bringing the militants to the negotiating table. But that seems optimistic, given that the U.S. could not accomplish that same goal when it had a vastly larger military presence in the country. Trump has yet to offer a comprehensive strategy, and as he underscored Thursday in announcing the U.S. exit from the Paris climate deal, his administration would focus on "America first." That calls into question whether any approach exists for ending this prolonged military mission.
Trump overplayed his hand with the allies on his European visit, and he further alienated them on the climate decision. That puts him in a weaker place to rally NATO around any game-changing strategy to end the Afghan war. The bombing attack has also left in tatters a planned peace conference scheduled in the Afghan capital Tuesday. On Friday, several demonstrators were killed in downtown Kabul during a huge public protest by nearly 1,000 people demanding better security. Trump needs to explain how sending more U.S. troops would change the course of the war, what the time line would be and what expectations exist of the Afghan government. The Pentagon's request for troops smacks of more of the same old approach with no assurance the outcome would be different.