U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the National Arts Center...

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the National Arts Center on Aug. 22, 2019 in Ottawa. Credit: AFP/Getty Images/SEBASTIEN ST-JEAN

Two U.S. soldiers were killed in Kabul, Afghanistan, from small-arms fire during combat late last month. We likely won’t know specific details about the service members' identities or circumstances for some time.

But what we do know is that ongoing attacks by the Taliban will test America's resolve to end what President Donald Trump has called an “endless” war. In fact, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly is reluctant to sign an "agreement in principle" between the Taliban and the United States, brokered by U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. And, the president has decided to cancel peace talks with the Taliban, at least for now.

Secondly, the deaths of the U.S. soldiers run against the grain of many Americans’ usual assumptions about war — and this post-9/11 war in particular — and most Americans’ feelings about losing service members in asymmetric conflicts.

The two service members were fighting on behalf of NATO’s Operation Resolute Support — a noncombat “train, advise, and assist” mission of more than 17,000 troops in Afghanistan, which started Jan. 1, 2015, after the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) ended Dec. 28, 2014.

While commanded by U.S. Army Gen. Austin Scott Miller, as the name suggests, this is a NATO mission. NATO allies with the Afghan government made the decision in 2012 (it has been reaffirmed frequently) to develop Afghan military capacity to defend and protect its citizens.

While Americans’ own security interests are at stake in this mission — no one wants to see another attack like 9/11 by al Qaeda operatives harbored in Afghanistan — the enormous investment in Afghanistan’s military capacity and security infrastructure comes at great price to Americans and citizens from other NATO-member states who have died in these combat and noncombat missions. Clearly, even this noncombat mission is beset with the armed conflict and violence associated with combat missions.

Of the 17,000-plus troops, the United States (8,475), Germany (1,300), and the United Kingdom (1,100) have provided the vast majority of “boots on the ground.” NATO members France and Canada, for instance, have zero troops in the fight. When U.S. administrations from Clinton to Trump pressure NATO members to contribute more to their own defense, the issue is not only about raising their GDP percentage contribution to NATO’s defense budget, it is also who is actually fighting in these security initiatives that European and NATO partners have deemed a priority.

Many Americans are concerned that more than 2,400 U.S. military personnel have died in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led 2001 invasion to end the Taliban’s safe haven for al Qaeda. After 18 years of U.S. involvement — with much blood and treasure spent, including the most priceless contributions made by US service members and their families — many ordinary Americans have skeptically wondered what positive outcomes have emerged from these massive investments.

Moreover, for all American and NATO efforts, few observers would claim that Afghanistan is politically and economically self-sufficient or stable, or that its military has achieved the necessary capacity to counter the Taliban and other extremist threats across its provinces, from al Qaeda to a reinvigorated Islamic State.

These outcomes contrast markedly with the nearly $6 trillion cost of the post-9/11 wars for Americans. Some analysts have argued that the current peace negotiations with the Taliban are a face-saving exit for the United States, given hefty public pressure from the Trump administration, which intends to keep its campaign promise of getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan. While the number of U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan is yet to be determined — if any at all — few believe that Taliban members are genuinely willing to commit to peace, ethnic and religious pluralism, or even inclusive power-sharing forms of governance. 

No doubt, losing more Americans in this complex asymmetric theater of warfare is strengthening the resolve of skeptics, from ordinary Americans to the highest ranks of U.S. politicians and policymakers.

Corri Zoli is associate teaching professor at Syracuse University College of Law and is director of research at the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism.

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