The unintentional U.S. airstrike on a hospital in Afghanistan over the weekend was a terrible tragedy that highlighted the problems facing the American commanders attempting to support local Afghan government troops against a growing Taliban insurgency. The attack killed 22 people, including 12 doctors and medical staff from the French aid group Doctors Without Borders. Such horrible mistakes occur in every war, and they always risk alienating the very civilians the actions were intended to protect. The Pentagon was right to promise a full investigation of the incident and to hold those responsible to account.

But the deeper question underlying the deaths is why air strikes were needed in the first place to regain control of a strategic Afghan city that just a few months ago was considered relatively secure. Put another way, why did several thousand Afghan government forces, trained and equipped by the U.S., suddenly flee in the face of an attack by what U.S. officials describe as only a few hundred Taliban fighters? The U.S. needs to reevaluate the strategy that produced this disturbing result and figure out exactly what went wrong and whether it can be fixed or is fundamentally unworkable.

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President Barack Obama came into office on a promise to end the war in Iraq, win the war in Afghanistan and bring U.S. troops home. By the end of the Bush administration the nation was weary of war and the president had a clear mandate to withdraw from America's costly foreign conflicts. But he soon discovered that was far easier said than done. In Iraq he had to accept a "surge" in troop numbers to stabilize the country enough to leave; and as soon as the U.S. combat mission there ended, the insurgency intensified, opening the door for the emergence of the Islamic State.

Likewise in Afghanistan, the withdrawal of American combat forces led to the re-emergence of the Taliban, which had never been completely wiped out after the 2001 U.S. invasion. The remaining U.S. presence in the country was to be limited to a relative handful of military advisers and trainers to stand up the Afghan government's security forces and an air campaign directed by American ground controllers and drone pilots targeting Taliban leaders and insurgent training sites.

In both countries, U.S. strategy relied on enlisting local fighters on the ground to defend and expand the territories cleared of insurgents before the departure of American ground troops. The U.S. role in Afghanistan, in particular, was envisioned as primarily providing intelligence, training and logistics support as well as coordinated airstrikes in support of friendly forces when necessary. The overriding goal of this strategy was to keep the enemy at bay while limiting American casualties to a minimum.

With the Taliban's bold assault on Kunduz last week and the resilience shown by Islamic State in Iraq, that strategy is now in question. Local forces trained by American advisers face some problems that are specific to each country, but what they have in common are weak leadership in the field that manifests itself in a lack of fighting spirit and a lack of political support from corrupt, dysfunctional central governments that have failed to address long-standing sectarian and ethnic grievances or inspire loyalty among the troops. The result has been ineffectual armed forces that are more inclined to flee than to fight.

American officials admit that the U.S. track record for building up the security forces in Afghanistan and Iraq has been dismal. As a result, the U.S. has failed to achieve its stated goals, and it has been repeatedly forced to reconsider whether those objectives can be reached at any reasonable cost. Despite calls from some conservative lawmakers to double down on our investment in Afghanistan by beefing up our forces on the ground there, the country is in no mood to send a large ground army back to re-occupy the country. For most Americans, Afghanistan and Iraq represent the kind of quagmire Vietnam once was, and they want no part of it

At this point it's difficult to imagine the Obama administration defying the wishes of voters by sending large numbers of American ground troops back to fight in Afghanistan. Given that political reality, perhaps the most prudent alternative would be for the administration to begin scaling back its expectations of what is possible there. There's no guarantee the current unstable situation in Afghanistan won't last another decade or more, during which neither side will be able to achieve a decisive victory. Other than an outright defeat of the U.S. supported government in Kabul and the Taliban's return to power, that may be the worst case-scenario for Afghanistan's future. But the U.S. would be foolish to not begin preparing for it now.

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