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The New York Times, May 11, 2019

The Unspeakable War

The conflict in Afghanistan is going badly, and the Trump administration doesn’t want to talk about it

By The Editorial Board

It’s easy to reach for metaphors to describe the war in Afghanistan — quagmire, money pit, a boulder that must be rolled up the Hindu Kush for eternity.

John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, told The Times this month that a recent decision by the Trump administration to stop releasing important metrics about the war — the size of the Taliban, for instance, or how many provinces they control — is akin to “turning off the scoreboard at a football game and saying scoring a touchdown or field goal isn’t important.”

Put another way, the American people are being kept more in the dark about the dismal state of the United States’ longest-running war, now in its 18th year.

Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested during a congressional hearing on Wednesday that the end was not in sight. “I think we will need to maintain a counterterrorism presence as long as an insurgency continues in Afghanistan,” General Dunford said.

The mission in Afghanistan has been long, deadly and badly in need of robust oversight. Since 2008, the inspector general’s office has been issuing quarterly reports that encompass both reconstruction and the state of the conflict. While classified versions of the reports accessible to Congress include secret information, versions prepared for the public have given an honest accounting to the taxpayers who fund the war and the families who send their loved ones to fight it.

In the latest report, in addition to the updates not provided to the inspector general on the number of districts and people living under Taliban control, the following metrics were classified or otherwise kept from the public eye: the number of casualties suffered by Afghan security forces; performance assessments of the Afghan Army, police and other security organizations; all but general information about the operational readiness of the security forces; the number and readiness of the elite Special Mission Wing of the Afghan Air Force; and reports on the progress of anticorruption efforts by the Ministry of the Interior.

What was documented in the public report was alarming enough, given that the time period covered was the winter months, when fighting often wanes. If the Trump administration’s plan was to pummel the Taliban into signing a peace deal, the statistics reveal a troubling truth about its effectiveness.

According to the inspector general’s report, enemy-initiated attacks during the winter rose considerably. The monthly average number of attacks, more than 2,000, was up 19 percent from last November through January, compared with the monthly average over the previous reporting period, ending in October. From December through the end of February, the number of Afghan military and security force casualties was 31 percent higher than a year earlier. The report also took grim note of the fact that Afghan government and international forces caused more civilian deaths during the quarter than anti-government forces did.

The Taliban announced the start of their annual spring offensive on April 12.

Peace talks in Qatar between the United States and the Taliban hold hope that an end to the conflict is at least on the horizon. A promising deal would include the withdrawal of American forces in exchange for guarantees from the Taliban that the country would not be used to launch foreign terrorist attacks. But the report reiterates the disturbing facts that the hobbled nation still faces existential threats from widespread corruption, rampant drug trafficking and threats to women’s rights — all in addition to the war.

The Trump administration has made missteps in its efforts to scale back the sprawling global war on terrorism. Its indecision on Syria left even staunch allies puzzled about American policy. For more than four months, the administration has lacked a secretary of defense, with the acting head, Patrick Shanahan, tapped for the permanent job only last week. Peace talks with the Taliban drag on — and Taliban attacks continue.

The least that the Trump administration can do is be more open and honest with the American public about the unvarnished reality of the situation in Afghanistan. (The Pentagon hasn’t held an on-camera briefing in nearly a year.) Americans may have given up hope of “winning” the war long ago. But that doesn’t mean the full public accounting should halt.

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