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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Mattis' Afghan trip underscores U.S. role 17 years after 9/11

On Monday, Taliban militants killed dozens of Afghan security personnel.

It was the latest in a widely reported series of attacks on government targets. New clashes erupted in four of the country's provinces. Last month came other clashes with more fatalities, and the Taliban seized two major Afghan bases and the city of Ghazni. 

The Afghanistan war is now 17 years old. U.S. military deaths total 2,372, according to an official tally. Dollar costs have topped $840 billion, including actions against Taliban forces, relief, and reconstruction.

No clear end is in sight. Last month the leader of ISIS in Afghanistan was killed in an airstrike, NATO officials said. Last week, one U.S. soldier was killed and another wounded in what appeared to be an insider attack by a member of the allied Afghan security forces.

On Friday, Defense Secretary James Mattis made a surprise trip to Afghanistan as part of the most recent visible effort to make headway toward some resolution.

Mattis met with the new commander of U.S. forces there, Army Gen. Scott Miller. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani met and thanked Mattis for the Trump administration's increased air support and reconnaissance flights. 

Over the long haul, many reports about progress from the Afghanistan have proved rosier than reality, from the size of Taliban-held territory, to its numerical strength, to the safety and health of the civilian population.

President Donald Trump is, of course, the third commander in chief to preside over an Afghanistan war since the operations began in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Last year Trump chose escalation over withdrawal and said strategic decisions would be made by "conditions on the ground" rather than "arbitrary timetables." 

On Aug. 21, Christopher Kolenda, a former U.S. commander and senior adviser in Afghanistan, told NPR: "The calculus [was] that if we increase the advisory effort, if we put more pressure on Pakistan, if we remove the timelines, then the Taliban will want to give up the fight.

"That has not been the case. You've seen the Taliban continue to make some territorial gains."

But that week the departing commander, Gen. John Nicholson, said the current strategy is working and needs more time to take advantage of an apparent desire by some inside the Taliban to negotiate peace.

“We have an unprecedented opportunity for peace now,” Nicholson said, as quoted in the Military Times.

In the U.S., the waiting continues.

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