ISIS is seen as America’s biggest threat. The Taliban have been basically forgotten. So here’s a grim and surprising statistic: more Americans have died in Afghanistan this year alone than have been killed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria since the group’s rise to power in 2014.
The fact that America’s longest war is going off the rails isn't something you would know from listening to either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.
During the first presidential debate, Afghanistan came up exactly once, as part of a longer Clinton answer on NATO. It didn’t come up during the second debate at all. In late October, during the final clash between the two candidates, neither made any reference to Afghanistan — even though just hours earlier a gunman in an Afghan military uniform killed two Americans and wounded three others.
The latest US deaths came Thursday when two US soldiers were killed, and two more wounded, during a joint operation with Afghan forces in the restive and violence-torn region of Kunduz. Gen. John Nicholson, the top US commander in Afghanistan, said the losses were “heartbreaking.”
The losses pushed the overall US death toll in Afghanistan this year alone to 11 — two more than have been killed inside Iraq and Syria by ISIS during its two years of bloodshed there. The most recent American fatality in the ISIS fight came Thursday when a US service member was killed by a roadside bomb near the Iraqi city of Mosul. The fighting there intensified over the weekend as ISIS lit oil wells and a sulfur plant on fire and mounted a string of counterattacks on the advancing forces, putting US troops under even greater risk.
Of course, ISIS is primarily at the heart of America’s terror fears because of the threat it poses inside the US, where militants claiming to act in its name have killed dozens, not because of its operations on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria. The Taliban, by contrast, have never killed Americans inside America. So it’s certainly understandable that Trump and Clinton would focus on ISIS more than the Taliban.
Still, the Taliban sheltered al-Qaeda before September 11, and the US went to war to push them out of power. The new deaths in Afghanistan are a grim reminder that the conflict, now in its 15th year, continues to grind along with little to no public attention — and little to no attention from the two candidates vying to be the next commander in chief.
“Afghanistan is going to hell, and it's happening quickly,” says Bill Roggio, who has spent years tracking the conflict for the Long War Journal website. “The problem is no talks about anything but ISIS. We’re still fighting in Afghanistan, and no one talks about that. It's just a totally forgotten war.”
Ignoring the Afghan war isn't a strategy
To be fair in this season of electoral cynicism, Clinton and Trump both have good reasons for wanting to avoid any discussion of Afghanistan.
During her time as secretary of state, Clinton was a vocal supporter of sending tens of thousands of additional US combat troops to Afghanistan. The surge left hundreds of Americans dead but failed to deal a body blow to the Taliban. Already under fire for her support for the Iraq War and the US intervention in Libya, Clinton clearly doesn’t want to call attention to another hawkish episode from her past that didn’t work out as planned.
Trump and his aides, meanwhile, have frequently stumbled when talking about Afghanistan. Trump himself called the war in Afghanistan “a terrible mistake” but also said “you have to stay in Afghanistan for a while” because of its proximity to nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Trump’s analysis of the war hasn’t impressed the Taliban, either: a Taliban spokesperson told NBC News after the first presidential debate that the real estate mogul and reality TV star says “anything that comes to his tongue” and was fundamentally “non-serious.”
Memo to the next president: al-Qaeda is back in Afghanistan
Whatever the reason, the silence about Afghanistan is a genuine shame since the future of the long US-led war there will be one of the first major choices that a President Trump or a President Clinton would have to make after moving into the Oval Office.
President Barack Obama had once talked about winding down the war and cutting the number of US troops in Afghanistan to about 1,000 by the start of 2017.
Last fall, however, Obama bowed to Pentagon pressure and agreed to leave around 9,800 troops in Afghanistan indefinitely. With the Taliban continuing to seize territory, the next president will need to decide whether to leave the troops there, send more, or bring even more of them home.
That won’t be an easy decision: Polls have consistently shown that a plurality of Americans consider the Afghan war to be a mistake, and the US has already lost at least 2,385 troops and spent hundreds of billions of dollars (an eye-popping $685.6 billion as of January 1, 2015). The war officially passed the 15-year mark on October 7.
It was anything but a happy anniversary. Earlier this year, a US government watchdog concluded that the “Taliban now controls more territory than at any time since 2001.” At his confirmation hearing, Nicholson said he agreed with John McCain’s contention that the overall security situation there was “deteriorating, rather than improving.”
Nicholson spoke in January. In the months since, the Taliban briefly conquered the provincial capital of Kunduz, expanded their control of the southern province of Helmand, and mounted a string of audacious and bloody attacks in the heart of Kabul.
Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, is gaining new footholds in the country it used to plan the 9/11 attacks. Last October, US forces raided a massive al-Qaeda base approximately 30 square miles in size that the then-top American commander in Afghanistan described as “probably the largest training-camp facility that we have seen in 14 years of war.”
Nicholson said recently that the US is hunting al-Qaeda militants in at least seven Afghan provinces. ISIS has also established a small presence in eastern Afghanistan that it used to plot a deadly attack in Kabul that killed 80 people this summer, prompting a large-scale American and Afghan military push against the group.
All of which to say that Afghanistan, which has been trending downward for several years, is deteriorating faster than anyone in Washington seems to have expected. The reaction here at home — on the campaign trail and in the presidential debates — is deafening silence. That does a disservice to those still fighting, and it does a disservice to those still dying.