by Helene Cooper
WASHINGTON — The Taliban is in retreat, the Afghan military is on the brink of assuming control of the country, and the government in Kabul is one step away from being able to provide security across the land. So three successive presidential administrations have said over 16 years about the war in Afghanistan.
Yet devastating attacks on villages, convoys, government offices and hotels continue.
Three strikes over the past two weeks have killed 128 people, mostly civilians, in Kabul, the Afghan capital, alone. The latest came Monday, when Islamic State militants stormed an Afghan military training base, killing at least 11 soldiers.
In coming months, the total number of US troops in Afghanistan will grow to an estimated 15,000. Nearly a third of them — 4,000 — will have been sent under President Donald Trump’s new war strategy, which he is expected to promote during his State of the Union address Tuesday night.
“We’re going to finish what we have to finish,” Trump told reporters Monday at the start of a lunch at the White House with U.N. ambassadors on the Security Council. “What nobody else has been able to finish, we’re going to be able to do it.”
But in a war that began with airstrikes and a few hundred Special Operations forces in 2001 and which later saw as many as 100,000 troops deployed, such promises have been heard before.
“It’s 2018, and there are young men and women now being sent over there who were literally in diapers when we first sent troops to Afghanistan,” said Will Fischer, a former Marine lance corporal who served in Iraq.
“We’re fighting the same battle over and over again,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a veteran of the Iraq War. “Our troops are losing their friends, they are shedding blood, over the same patch of ground, over and over again.”
Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, visiting Kabul in September, quickly hustled to waiting helicopters for the brief flight to NATO headquarters instead of driving downtown on the harrowing roads from the international airport on the capital’s outskirts. The Taliban still fired off some obligatory rockets at the airport to welcome him.
Still, US officials insist that change is just around the corner.
“Looking ahead to 2018, as President Ghani said, he believes we have turned the corner and I agree,” Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr. told Pentagon reporters on Nov. 28, referring to Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani. “The momentum is now with the Afghan security forces.”
He would know. He is the latest in a string of commanders in Afghanistan, and he said the same thing a year before. “We are stabilising what was once a deteriorating situation and have the international support to progress even further in the coming years,” he told the same group of reporters in December 2016.
Six months later, a truck bomb devastated a central area of Kabul near the presidential palace and foreign embassies in one of the deadliest strikes. Some 150 people were killed and 300 more injured.
US optimism goes all the way back to November 17, 2001, when Laura Bush, then the first lady, said the Taliban “is now in retreat across much of the country, and the people of Afghanistan, especially women, are rejoicing.”
At the time, US troops had been in Afghanistan for a month. And just days into 2002, Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Ross Chapman of San Antonio became the first US soldier killed by hostile fire, during an ambush in eastern Afghanistan.
Chapman’s death would be followed by those of 2,215 more US troops in Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon’s most recent count.
Three months after Chapman’s death, Condoleezza Rice, then the White House national security adviser, declared that “the Taliban regime has been routed.”
“Afghanistan,” she said, “has been transformed from a terrorist-sponsored state into a country led by people who are trying to create a better future.”
A year later, on May 1, 2003, Defence Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the main war effort was ending. “We’re at a point where we clearly have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilisation and reconstruction activities,” he said of a conclusion by the United States, NATO and the Afghan government.
He called most of Afghanistan “secure.” Troops were still dying: Four German soldiers who were heading home that June at the end of their NATO deployment were killed in a suicide bombing on the way to the airport in Kabul.
But by then, the United States’ attention had turned almost completely to Iraq. US forces would soon be battling insurgents in gritty urban warfare that played out on television screens around the world. Afghanistan, and the Taliban’s resurgence there, receded from the national conscience.
As he was running for president in 2008, Barack Obama presented Afghanistan as the war the United States should be fighting, not the “dumb war” in Iraq. Still, days before he left office, President George W. Bush visited Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan on Dec. 16, 2008, to tell troops that “the Taliban is gone from power, and it’s not coming back.”
Except the Taliban had already returned. In July 2008, the group bombed the Indian Embassy in Kabul, killing 58. Nine US troops died the same month in an attack on a NATO base. And that August, the Taliban killed 10 French soldiers in the country’s eastern Uzbin Valley.
But US commanders were still predicting victory.
“The insurgency is not going to win in Afghanistan,” said Gen. David D. McKiernan, who was the top commander on Feb. 18, 2009, when he briefed reporters. “The vast majority of the people that live in Afghanistan reject the Taliban or other militant insurgent groups. They have nothing to offer them. They do not bring any hope for a better future.
“The insurgency will not win in Afghanistan.”
About the same time, Obama authorised sending in 17,000 more troops. His national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones, promised in March to deploy another 4,000 Americans to train Afghan national security forces.
And by December, Obama agreed to a surge of an additional 30,000 troops in Afghanistan.
“It will be clear to the Afghan government, and more importantly to the Afghan people, that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country,” Obama said in a speech at West Point on Dec. 1, 2009. But he indicated that he would begin withdrawing troops in 2011.
The Taliban kept up its onslaught. Among other violence, military bases at Bagram and Kandahar were attacked in 2010 and a NATO convoy in Kabul was bombed, killing 18.
Still, on March 16, 2011, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the war’s commander at the time, said he was preparing to hand off responsibility for security operations to Afghan forces, given “hard-fought achievements” that he said reversed the Taliban’s momentum in key areas.
On May 27, 2014, Obama announced that the bulk of US forces would head home. An estimated 100,000 US troops were in Afghanistan at the peak of war operations; that number would dwindle to 10,000 under Obama’s strategy.
“It’s time to turn the page on more than a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said.
That was before the Islamic State arrived on the scene. In 2015, the extremist group rooted in Iraq and Syria marked its arrival in Afghanistan with a suicide bomb attack in Jalalabad, killing more than 30 people and injuring more than 100.
Not to be outdone, the Taliban soon after overran Kunduz — the first time the group had managed to take over a major city since 2001. Afghan government troops, backed by the United States, eventually wrested back control.
By the end of 2016, Nicholson, the current war commander, said the United States’ support “sends a clear message to the enemies of peace and stability in Afghanistan, and the world, frankly, that they will not win.” Four months later, he ordered the dropping of the “mother of all bombs” — the most powerful conventional bomb in the US arsenal — on an Islamic State cave complex in the Achin district of eastern Afghanistan.
In November, Nicholson delivered another bright update from Kabul. “The Taliban cannot win in the face of the pressures that I outlined,” he said on Nov. 28. “Again, their choices are to reconcile, live in irrelevance or die.”
The extremists chose a different option.
The Taliban launched a bloody 15-hour siege on a major hotel in Kabul last week, killing 22. On Saturday, at least 95 people died when an ambulance packed with explosives blew up on a busy street in the capital. And the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a an attack on an Afghan military base on Monday. At least 11 Afghan soldiers were killed.