On May 11, The New York Times published a poignant article about the ceremonial burial at Arlington National Cemetery of Staff Sergeant Mark De Alencar, the first American to die in combat in Afghanistan in 2017. “Three rifle volleys rang out from a seven-man firing party,” after which a brigadier general presented folded American flags to De Alencar’s widow, Natasha, and other members of his family.
“Honestly, I thought the war was over before Mark got sent there,” said Alisha Brown, Mrs. De Alencar’s sister. So too do most Americans, who largely believed President Obama when he announced in 2014 that the US combat mission in Afghanistan had drawn to a close. But that’s not the way it looks to top American military officials, who have presented President Trump with a request for the deployment of some 3,000 to 5,000 more US troops in that country—a request Trump that is likely to approve. Far from withdrawing from Afghanistan, it appears that this country is being drawn ever deeper into a never-ending quagmire.
The United States first became involved in Afghanistan in October 2001, following the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, DC. Initially, the aim of the US intervention, dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom, was to topple the Taliban regime then in control of the country and to capture the leaders of Al Qaeda, who’d plotted the 9/11 attacks while residing there—an operation that was assumed to require just a few months. But the Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership managed to escape into remote mountain hideouts on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, from where Taliban militants were able to mount periodic assaults on the US-installed government in Kabul.
After the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the outbreak of a bitter insurgency there, the Bush administration neglected the conflict in Afghanistan and moved the cream of US combat forces to the Iraqi battlefield—a shift that afforded Taliban militants greater opportunity to mount attacks inside Afghanistan. As US commanding officers in Kabul came and went, the Taliban made steady gains in Afghanistan, gaining control over more and more of the countryside. By the time Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009, conditions in Afghanistan had become so bad, his generals insisted, that only a substantial “surge” of US troops (like the one ordered by President Bush in 2007 in Iraq) could salvage the situation. Against the advice of Vice President Joe Biden and others, Obama approved the emergency deployment of an additional 30,000 combat troops in late 2009, claiming they would remain there until the situation had stabilized, and then be withdrawn (this was in addition to an increase of several thousand troops the president had ordered soon after taking the oath of office earlier that year).
For a time, the deployment of additional US soldiers (and others contributed by America’s NATO allies) helped to blunt the Taliban attacks and ensure some degree of peace in Kabul and other large cities. Vast resources were also poured into the expansion and professionalization of the Afghan National Army. With the façade of a functioning government being assembled in Kabul, Obama proudly proclaimed that the war was drawing to a close and that American combat troops would be returning home. “Now, thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending, and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion,” he declared on December 28, 2014.