It’s easy to forget for some, given the whirlwind of world news and Washington scandal hijacking the headlines.
But there are still about 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, a level lower than the nearly 100,000 in 2010, but higher than the 2015 drawdown level of about 9,800.
They’ve been fighting a war that has lasted 17 years for Americans — and decades for Afghans.
The country’s conflict pierced the consciousness of some on Monday after a U.S. service member was killed in eastern Afghanistan and after nine journalists were slain by a suicide bomber in Kabul. A 10th was shot in a separate attack in what was the deadliest day for journalists since 2002.
It wasn’t the expected extremists in the Taliban claiming credit for killing reporters, but an offshoot of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a scourge well-known to the region but relatively new to the enduring, if not endless, Afghan conflict.
It was the second ISIS blast in eight days: Monday’s assault claimed 25 victims overall, and 57 Afghans lining up to register to vote were killed just a week prior. Because both the Taliban and ISIS indiscriminately kill, conflating the two is understandable. But the terrorist organizations “are generally in competition with each other,” said Frances Z. Brown, a fellow in the Democracy and Rule of Law Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Both target journalists in part because the country’s “independent media is a genuine success story of post-2001 Afghanistan,” Brown said in an e-mail exchange. “With support from the international community, the Afghan media has developed into a vibrant, professional sector that is widely utilized and trusted.” In fact, an annual survey of Afghans suggests that the media is behind only religious figures in who the public trusts. So terrorist groups, Brown believes, “want to undermine this visible, authentic manifestation of progress and modernity in Afghanistan.”
One of those trusted journalists was Shah Marai, an Agence France-Presse photographer whose searing images captured the carnage to which he eventually fell victim. A father of six, including two blind children, Marai also supported three blind brothers, living a life that bore testament to the tenacity of so many Afghans. Like first responders, Marai and the other eight journalists intrepidly ran to cover the first bombing only to be deliberately targeted in the second.
Kabul-based reporters “are incredibly brave to stand up and keep doing this,” said Steven Butler, the Asia Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “There are some real heroes among the press corps.”
These heroes, just like U.S. troops and Afghan citizens, will likely be in harm’s way for the foreseeable future.
“President [Donald] Trump’s new South Asia Strategy importantly takes a conditions-based, rather than time-based strategy,” Brown said. “It is less clear what the ‘conditions’ actually are, at least from outside of government. It’s also definitely too early to gauge impact on this strategy.”
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made a “credible, specific peace-talk proposal to the Taliban” this year, Brown said. But the spring “fighting season” has begun, and the Taliban has taken up arms, not offered handshakes.
“We have a Taliban that is not only able to continue to operate, but gain ground,” albeit in rural, not urban, environs, said Seth G. Jones, director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Taliban tenacity, ISIS nihilism, an ineffective government and an internationally intensive war mean an end is not near.
“I do not see any end to this conflict, in part because, with a relatively weak central government, and virtually every neighbor in Afghanistan is playing to some degree in the country,” Jones said. “This war is being fueled by states from multiple sides; it’s also fueled by a burgeoning drug trade. ... The fact that there is relatively weak governance, there are plenty of resources to continue fighting, and there are grievances against both the Taliban and the Afghan government mean that there are plenty of opportunities and a high likelihood that this war will continue for the foreseeable future.”
“We can foresee ongoing, grinding conflict,” concurred Brown. Which means that U.S. troops will remain imperiled. So the war, the selfless Americans serving there and the Afghan people themselves should indeed be remembered.
So too should those who risk their lives to inform the world about a war many have forgotten.
“Don’t for a minute think that we in the West have a monopoly on the love of expression and freedom of the press,” said Butler on Thursday, which was World Press Freedom Day.
The slain journalists, he said, “died for a cause that is fundamentally important to the way our society works, and really we should appreciate that and realize that there are a lot of allies out there.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.