The US is still at war in Afghanistan – not that you’d know it from the presidential election. While the campaign against ISIL (also known as ISIS) in Iraq and Syria or the 2011 intervention in Libya have been discussed frequently, the Afghan conflict was mentioned only once in the recent presidential debates.
Now in its 16th year, the occupation of Afghanistan is the longest war in US history. More than 8,000 troops are still deployed there, down from a peak of around 100,000. More than 2,300 American soldiers and at least 31,000 civilians have died in the conflict, which has cost about $800bn.
But, despite this considerable expenditure of resources, things are not going well for the US.
Experts warn of a deepening security crisis, as much of Afghanistan is now too dangerous for Westerners to visit. Even Kabul, once a sanctuary of sorts, increasingly experiences bomb blasts, and kidnappings are common across the country.
The Taliban is on the offensive, funded by a booming drugs trade, and reportedly controls more territory than it ever has since the 2001 invasion.
It briefly managed to capture the important northern city of Kunduz last September, and threatens to take other provincial capitals, too.
The US-backed Afghan army is struggling to cope, suffering from high casualty rates and desertions, and only last week there was another “green-on-blue” attack, which killed two Americans. In a sign of how bad things are, US President Barack Obama reversed his decision to reduce troop levels and expanded US air strikes in the summer, too.
A new story by The Washington Post paints a bleak picture of the war, with one US official describing it as an “eroding stalemate”. To make matters worse, ISIL has emerged in Afghanistan and now occupies territory near the Pakistani border. Suspected ISIL fighters just killed dozens of civilians in retaliation for the death of one of their commanders.
Increased violence has taken a heavy toll on the civilian population. The UN documented record civilian casualties in 2015, with little improvement this year.
Indeed, 2016 has seen a “worrying” 15 percent increase in child casualties. Afghanistan is the world’s second largest source of refugees, after Syria, and a “brain drain” has seen educated professionals flee the country, while the number of internally displaced Afghans has doubled since 2013.
The US-backed Afghan army is struggling to cope, suffering from high casualty rates and desertions, and only last week there was another 'green-on-blue' attack, which killed two Americans.
True, there have been improvements in healthcare, education, and infrastructure, as Carlotta Gall pointed out this month in The New York Times.
But the situation is now worryingly fragile, she writes, reminiscent of Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal and before the country’s precipitous descent into civil war.
Compounding these many problems is Afghanistan’s weak and divided “national unity government”, assembled in autumn 2014 after a disputed election. President Ashraf Ghani and chief executive Abdullah Abdullah were given two years to transition to a more stable system, but that process has not even started.
Bickering between factions has hampered Afghanistan’s security efforts, preventing the appointment of permanent defence and intelligence chiefs. It has also undermined economic development and anti-corruption initiatives.
Corruption is endemic in Afghanistan, fuelled by enormous amounts of foreign aid money. A new report by the US government concludes that American anti-corruption programmes have failed, and that aid money has fallen into the hands of the Taliban.
This has robbed the Kabul government of legitimacy and driven many Afghans to support the insurgency. With former President Hamid Karzai maybe planning a return to power, things do not bode well for the country’s future stability.
But, despite these alarming developments, neither of the US presidential candidates has proposed a strategy for dealing with Afghanistan. This is inexcusable, not only because the Afghan people need all the help they can get, but also because Afghanistan matters for US national security.
There are at least 1,000 ISIL fighters in the country, according to the Department of Defense, and al-Qaeda has also made a comeback. Pakistan has a long history of supporting militants in Afghanistan and could add fuel to the fire.
To make matters even more complicated, the Afghan branch of ISIL is partly composed of former members of the Pakistan Taliban, which opposes the government in Islamabad. ISIL fighters have apparently been active in Pakistan, trying to destabilise the nuclear-armed state.
On October 25, an attack on a police barracks in Balochistan killed 60 people, and the Sunni sectarian group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which some believe has ties to ISIL, claimed responsibility. With so much at stake in the region, the US cannot just turn away.
Indeed, Washington has an important diplomatic role to play. Informal talks between the Taliban and Afghan government have just re-started, and the US is involved. The US helped to broker a recent agreement between Kabul and the notorious Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, too, suggesting that some kind of deal with the Taliban may be possible.
But negotiating with a group that has killed so many Americans might not be to every president’s taste. Would Clinton or Trump continue these talks? Would they beef up US military and economic assistance? How will they help to ease the political tensions in Kabul?
These questions urgently demand answers, because, as things stand, voters have next to no idea how the candidates would handle Afghanistan.
Maybe the American public just doesn’t care about this war. Polling has shown that it is the most unpopular conflict in US history, surpassing even Vietnam. But the West must not ignore Afghanistan, as it did in the 1990s. We all know where that ended up.
Rupert Stone is an independent journalist working on national security and counterterrorism.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.