- - Monday, July 31, 2017

America’s longest war has cost more than 2,300 lives and 20,000 wounded, and $1.07 trillion. The value of the lives cannot be measured. Now President Trump has authorized sending 3,000 to 5,000 more troops to strengthen training and support efforts there, adding to the 9,800 Americans who are part of an international force of 13,000.

But the price of the war in Afghanistan has to be reckoned as much greater than that. Battlefield medicine has so improved that more than 90 percent of the soldiers wounded in Afghanistan recover; the survival rate in the Vietnam War was 86.5 percent. But 320,000 veterans of the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq suffer Traumatic Brain Injury. More than 1,600 veterans lost all or part of a limb and many thousands more suffer flashbacks, hypervigilance and difficulty sleeping. The cost for these veterans’ medical payments over the next 40 years will be more than $1 trillion.

Now there’s a resurgence of fighting against the Taliban and the Islamic State, or ISIS, in Afghanistan. The options for policymakers in Washington are narrowing, and another threat against the American homeland grows from North Korea. Decision time appears ever more imminent for Mr. Trump and his administration. The intelligence wise men — who have been saying for months that the ultimate threat, an ICBM missile with a nuclear warhead, is years away — now are not so sure. The fighting in Afghanistan, terrible as it is, might become a mere distraction from the main show.

A complete withdrawal from Afghanistan would surely lead to a resurgence of Taliban operations and the added participation of other radical Islamic forces. The possibility of the region becoming a base for attacks on the American homeland as well would be a real possibility. Afghanistan in Taliban hands would threaten neighboring Pakistan, with 200 million Muslims, and in India, with an Islamic minority projected to reach 310 million over the next three decades.

NATO formally ended combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014, in effect transferring full security responsibility to the Afghan government. Pakistani military operations in the North Waziristan tribal area two years ago dislodged thousands of mainly Uzbek, Arab and Pakistani Islamic militants, who flooded into Afghanistan to swell Taliban ranks.

Afghan security forces lacked capabilities and equipment, especially air power and reconnaissance, to counter the increasingly frequent Taliban terrorist attacks, even against the cities. The Taliban detonated a car bomb outside the National Assembly two years go. The Quadrilateral Coordination Group, consisting of Afghan, American, Chinese and Pakistani officials, invited the Taliban to discuss peace talks in January 2016, but nothing much has come of that.

Last year the U.S. military was authorized to go on the offensive against militants affiliated with the ISIS in Afghanistan after the U.S. State Department designated the ISIS in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a foreign terrorists

The question facing the United States in Afghanistan, and it’s a true dilemma, is whether it should strengthen its forces, modify the terms of engagement to add more air attacks to break the various Taliban groups. That might not be enough to sufficiently strengthen the feuding, corrupt Kabul regime and its own military. The alternative appears to be a total withdrawal, rather than the piecemeal approach illustrated by the new increase in American forces. And that suggests the mission-creep strategy that led to the war in Vietnam.

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