Steve Chapman
If Charles Dickens were writing "A Tale of Two Cities" about today's Afghanistan, his opening line would be abbreviated: "It was the worst of times."

"Sunday was a particularly deadly day in Afghanistan," reported the Associated Press this week. "Roadside bombs and militant attacks killed seven American soldiers, 19 Afghan civilians and seven Afghan policemen.

"Violence erupted again on Monday as militants launched suicide attacks on two police headquarters and carried out other assaults that left 20 people dead -- three policemen, an Afghan prosecutor, two children and 14 attackers, according to officials."

But when are there ever peaceful stretches in Afghanistan anymore? This year, 176 American military personnel have been killed, bringing the total to more than 2,000 dead and 15,000 wounded. At the current rate, 2012 will be the third bloodiest year of the war.

We have also lavished upward of half a trillion dollars on the effort at a time when we are not exactly flush with revenue. All our sacrifices, however, appear to be in vain. Afghan civilian casualties tripled between 2006 and this year.

And these may be the good old days. After 11 years, the longest war in American history, we have begun the process of leaving. Our combat troops are supposed to be gone by the end of 2014. Opponents of withdrawal say it will endanger our gains, and that the only way to assure success is to stay even longer.

But what reason is there to believe another 11 years would achieve what the past 11 didn't? "Judged by any yardstick -- its ability to protect its officials, provide basic services and control corruption -- Afghanistan has made little or no headway since 2001," wrote Yale University security scholar Jason Lyall last year.

We have been down this road before -- spending huge sums of money as well as thousands of lives trying to build a semblance of an honest, competent, halfway democratic government in a country beset by determined homegrown militants. It didn't work in Vietnam, and it hasn't worked in Afghanistan.

Why that should be is a puzzle. Things started out brilliantly in 2001, with a quick, seemingly complete defeat of the enemy. In 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld exulted: "The Taliban are gone. The al-Qaida are gone."

But things drifted off course. We let Osama bin Laden escape. Pakistan furnished aid and refuge to the insurgents. We shifted our focus to Iraq. President Hamid Karzai proved unable or unwilling to establish security and curb corruption. Before long, the enemy was back with a vengeance.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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