This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.
Compared with past wars, America’s struggle against the Taliban in Afghanistan has been light on casualties.
After almost 12 years, the U.S. death toll stands at roughly 2,000. In the bloodiest battles of World War II and the Civil War, this country has lost that many in a single day.
But the trend – reflected in a spate of recent casualties among soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord – has been headed in the wrong direction. A New York Times analysis last week showed that the rate of deaths has risen dramatically in the last two years.
A few numbers tell the story: It took almost nine years for the United States to lose its first 1,000 troops in Afghanistan. It took only 27 months to lose the second 1,000.
JBLM soldiers have been killed with familiar weapons, roadside bombs and small arms. But others have been killed by unfriendly “friendlies.”
With the United States moving toward withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, American and NATO troops have been training the country’s army and other security forces to defend their own population against the Taliban. Some men in Afghan uniforms have been turning their weapons on Americans. Six Marines were killed on one day alone, Aug. 10, in two separate attacks.
Afghan officials claim the attackers are Taliban fighters who infiltrated government forces. The Pentagon attributes the killings to individuals who harbor grudges against foreign troops.
Either way, such attacks would be rare if the Afghan government and its military commanders were effectively policing the ranks of their own forces.
The country as a whole is splintered into tribes and factions – Taliban or not – that resent each other and Westerners to varying degrees. If the government can’t build an army that transcends those grievances and rivalries, Afghanistan’s future will remain bleak.
At this point, the United States has two arguably good reasons to stick to President Obama’s gradual troop withdrawal schedule.
By increasing the chances that the current government – corrupt but nondepraved – will ultimately stand on its own, we lower the chances that Afghanistan will relapse into a staging ground for attacks on Americans. By preventing depraved fanatics from retaking the country, we prevent them from inflicting their familiar atrocities on women, girls and nonfanatics.
But if it becomes clear that neither of those good outcomes is going to happen – or that the Western presence is working against those good outcomes – it will be time to cut our losses with greater haste than Obama has in mind.