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Another tragedy strikes Afghanistan with no coherent U.S. policy in sight

The latest attack is further proof that Trump has failed to approach sustainable policy approach to tackle Afghanistan’s problems.

fghans carry an injured man after a suicide car bombing in Helmand province southern of Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, June 22, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Abdul Khaliq
fghans carry an injured man after a suicide car bombing in Helmand province southern of Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, June 22, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Abdul Khaliq

Over 250 people have died in mass attacks in Afghanistan since April — a sign that America’s longest war isn’t getting any better under the Trump administration.

On Thursday, at least 34 people were killed and 60 wounded when a car bomb went off outside of a bank in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Both civilians and security forces were among the casualties, many of whom were lined up to collect their salaries when the explosion occurred. Several journalists and media workers were also among the casualties.

“I was waiting in front of the bank to take my salary, but I was worried about an explosion so I didn’t join the crowd,” Rahmatullah, a border police officer who sustained an injury to his leg, told the Guardian. “And then suddenly the blast happened. I saw [a] lot of injured and dead people.”

Helmand has long been a Taliban stronghold, and the extremist group quickly claimed responsibility for the blast.

Thursday’s attack is just the latest tragedy to strike Afghanistan, which has experienced an uptick in violence recently. On Sunday, suicide bombers attacked a police station in eastern Afghanistan, killing at least five people and leaving another 30 wounded, many of whom were civilians. In late May, a truck bombing in Kabul, near an area frequented by diplomats and considered one of the city’s safest areas, killed 80 people and injured 350. A massive attack on a military base in April also saw high casualties. There have been multiple mass-casualty attacks in the country over the course of the last three months — as of Thursday, those attacks have killed more than 250 people.

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The recent tragedies are a grim reminder that Afghanistan, which has suffered through decades of war, is still a volatile place for many. But they’re also yet another indicator that the United States, which has spent 16 years at war in the country, is no closer to developing a sustainable policy approach to tackle Afghanistan’s problems. If anything, President Donald Trump’s administration has repeatedly failed to establish its long-term plan for the country, where U.S. policy has often hurt more than helped.

More than 2,300 U.S. citizens have been killed in Afghanistan since the war began, and another 17,000 have been injured (numbers are much higher for Afghans, who have endured the brunt of the war’s losses.) Under former President Barack Obama, efforts were made to scale back the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but Trump has taken the opposite approach. While most analysts are skeptical that the Taliban — the country’s primary source of violence — can be defeated by an increase in military might, the U.S. president has indicated he’s ready to do just that. Last week, Trump gave Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis complete authority to determine troop levels in Afghanistan.

Mattis, who has acknowledged the United States is in a stalemate with the Taliban, has said he will brief policymakers on his plans by mid-July.

“We are not winning in Afghanistan right now,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee the day of Trump’s announcement. “And we will correct this as soon as possible.” Reuters noted that correction is expected to involve a call for thousands more U.S. troops on the ground.

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Senator John McCain (R-AZ), the committee’s chairman, also told Mattis he believed there needs to be “a change in strategy, and an increase in resources if we are to turn the situation around” in Afghanistan.

Turning the situation around will be easier said than done. At present, the Afghan government is believed to control around 59.7 percent of the country, with the Taliban overseeing around 40 percent by some estimates. While those numbers have fluctuated over the years, they still speak to an unchanging, and underlying, problem, one that no amount of U.S. interference has solved. Even with thousands more troops in the country, Obama was still unable to sway the direction of the war or of Afghanistan’s warring factions.

Trump himself has reversed course more than once when it comes to Afghanistan. “It is time to get out of Afghanistan,” he tweeted in 2012. “We are building roads and schools for people that hate us. It is not in our national interests.”

But now the president seems to have changed his mind. Despite rarely mentioning the country on the campaign trail or during his first months in office, Trump abruptly switched tracks in April when the Pentagon detonated the “Massive Ordnance Air Blast” or the “Mother of All Bombs,” in Nangarhar, located in eastern Afghanistan.

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“Everybody knows exactly what happened,” Trump said following the blast. “What I do is I authorize my military. We have the greatest military in the world and they’ve done a job, as usual.” Vice President Mike Pence later said the bombing, along with another strike in Syria, was meant to send a warning to North Korea, indicating both countries had been used as props in a larger show of aggression.

With the Trump administration stepping up troop numbers in Afghanistan, the long-suffering nation may receive more U.S. attention than it has since Trump took office. But according to the New York Times, White House officials are still debating just what exactly a U.S. role in Afghanistan should look like — with no coherent approach emerging.

In the meantime, residents in areas like Helmand are still working through the aftermath of tragedy, a trend they have endured for many, many years.