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Afghanistan: The forever war

Doctors treat a boy hurt in a deadly

Doctors treat a boy hurt in a deadly attack on a Shiite mosque in Gardez, the capital of Paktia, Afghanistan on Friday. Two suicide bombers attacked the Shiite mosque in eastern Afghanistan during Friday prayers, killing several people and wounding anothers, officials said. Credit: AP

You might remember the picture.

It was in The New York Times (June 4). A teenage boy lies on a plank, looking at us, shirtless, hands folded on his chest, a sheet around his waist, and his legs are gone. Eleven members of his family, 10 of them children, had gathered around an object left behind by a Taliban attack. Two of the youngest children tried to pick it up. A 16-year-old, named Jalil, jumped in to stop them and it exploded. Four were killed, seven survivors all lost legs.

In mid-May, the Taliban killed about 100 Afghan soldiers and police officers in one week. By then the Taliban had taken control of 14 of the country’s 407 districts. And it appeared that the security situation, day by day, was getting worse.

In 16 years, more than 2,200 U.S. troops have been killed, 42,100 Taliban killed, 31,419 Afghan civilians killed, 30,470 Afghan military killed. So, why don’t we win? Well, we do win if winning means we kill more of the enemy than they killed of us. But we can’t leave because the country would fall apart if we were not there.

For politicians it is safer that we stay. Ours is a volunteer army, and there’s less danger that the public will rise up against the war. One professor at a recent Harper’s Magazine forum on the war, told me he has many students who don’t know we have 2,000 troops in Syria; another didn’t know there were 1,000 troops in Niger. The American public has no idea how the military operates, how the defense budget is spent. They just know they should respect the military.

Six Army officers, veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq or Vietnam, said at the forum they do not believe drone strikes help us win wars. Yet the leadership and the public go along with that strategy because it gives the impression we are doing something even if the strategy is a loser and questionable on ethical grounds. When civilians get killed, we say, “OK, so the strike killed a wedding party. We’re sorry. That’s cool. Right?”

We have been weakened, even corrupted, by what we call “American exceptionalism.” That’s the idea that we can land in a country and say, “Hey, have you heard of us? Because we are awesome, let’s create something that looks like us.”

Andrew J. Bacevich, who fought in Vietnam and is perhaps the best known writer in the group, asks the final question. “Let’s say no one steps in to end these wars. How likely is it then that the United States will be able to achieve its original aims in Iraq and Afghanistan — that both nations will become stable countries aligned with the United States?” Another answers, “I’m 100 percent pessimistic.” We should concentrate on counterterrorism, focus on policies and tactics aimed at terrorists.

The group does not argue that a combination of military and civilian leaders can take these problems and somehow solve them. Bacevich recalls, “What I remember being taught about war is that it is chaos.”

Meanwhile, in mid-June, back in Afghanistan, there was a surprise. A group of eight people began a march for peace. It grew as it marched, staying over at mosques where 300 villagers would listen to their stories.

During the same days, the Eid al-Fitr holiday was celebrated, as the Taliban came to town and mixed with the young men of the Afghan army like old friends. At the end, the Taliban declined to extend the cease fire; it asked foreign forces to leave. Halfway across the country, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who wants to be president, sat down and wrote “The Right Way to Put America First.” He calls for exit negotiations that make it impossible for Afghanistan to ever again become “a terrorist safe haven.”

The Rev. Raymond A. Schroth is emeritus editor of America magazine.