Dangers in the vacuum
The U.S. has invested too much in Afghanistan to see it fall.
CARNAGE HAS again spread across a city in Afghanistan. On Saturday, U.S. forces may have mistakenly bombed a trauma hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz, in Afghanistan’s north, killing at least 19 people and injuring many more. The bombing occurred during a battle with Taliban fighters who, in a surprising show of strength, briefly captured Kunduz last week, the first major urban center to fall to the militia in 14 years. The demoralized Afghan army put up a slow and halting response, but eventually counterattacked, and retook the city, although there is continued fighting.
The Taliban attack on Kunduz was part of a larger series of strikes across the north from Sept. 23 to Oct. 1 that are being commanded by Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, long-time deputy to Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader whose death two years ago was confirmed last summer. Mr. Mansour, whose legitimacy had been challenged by rivals, seems to be using the offensive to consolidate his position and demonstrate his military prowess.
President Ashraf Ghani, who had hoped to carry out peace talks with the Taliban, said that conflict is continuing in 10 to 13 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces; talks were suspended at the time Mr. Omar’s death was confirmed. Certainly, it would be in Afghanistan’s interest to get the Taliban to the table.
In the United States, some may be tempted to see the latest flare-up and the hospital disaster as a warning not to get more deeply involved. But there are also dangers in a vacuum.
Ever since President Obama committed to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, the Taliban has been waiting and calculating the moment of their return. About 9,800 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, but the United States and NATO have wound down their combat role— they are there to advise and train Afghan forces — and Mr. Obama has pledged a complete pullout by the end of his term.
According to The Post’s Mohammad Sharif and Tim Craig, during the Kunduz conflict, Afghan forces appeared to be close to the breaking point because of declining morale. “In frank discussions with coalition commanders,” they reported, “Afghan generals have pleaded for more help from the international community.”
The hospital bombing is certain to intensify a sense of fatigue with the war. There’s no disputing that Afghans must shoulder the burden of the fight. But it would help keep the Taliban at bay if Mr. Obama reversed course and made clear that U.S. troops will depart when it is safe to do so, not according to a political calendar.
The Taliban is patient, and the United States has invested too much over the years to see Afghanistan fall deeper into the abyss, yet again.