It’s a war that has ground on for sixteen years, but one in which Donald Trump seems determined to stay the course. Foreign Editor David Pratt, who has covered Afghanistan since the Soviet conflict of the 80s, reports on why ‘victory’ will continue to remain elusive.

I RECALL a story I heard some years ago in Afghanistan. Oleg Kazic, a former Russian military intelligence officer who had served at the height of the war there in the 1980s, told it to me over a glass of vodka one evening in Kabul.

Oleg described how one day a Soviet army patrol had entered an Afghan village. Short of rations, one junior officer knocked on the door of a mud hut to inquire whether anyone who lived there could spare some bread. An old woman came to the door and, although she herself was desperately short of food, contributed what she could.

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Touched by the woman’s generosity, the officer next day, before leaving the village, returned to the house to present some tea as a thank you gift. Again, the same old lady came to the door, but this time after opening it, she instantly tried to plunge a pitchfork into the officer’s stomach.

Later, the soldier she had attacked asked the woman why she had done such a thing. Her answer was simple. As a good Muslim and Pashtun devoted to the tribal code – Pashtunwali – she had been obliged to offer what hospitality she could.

But why then try to kill me, the officer inquired, still puzzled?

She explained that having fulfilled her obligation of hospitality, it was then incumbent on her to fulfill that other tenet of Afghan tribal law that requires her to confront and combat the infidel.

“How do you fight such people?” Oleg asked me, still bemused all these years later as we sat that night in Kabul, speculating on where the current war in Afghanistan might be heading.

For Oleg, the incident acted as a defining moment in which he realised the Soviet Union, with all its military might, would never subdue the mujahideen resistance in Afghanistan, let alone win its war there.

Later, while working as an instructor at a Soviet military academy he would often recount the story to the cadet officers he was helping train.

Oleg’s story came to mind again last week as US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said he had signed orders to send additional troops to Afghanistan, the most concrete step yet by President Donald Trump’s administration in tackling America’s longest war.

Mattis said he would not comment on how many troops were included in the orders until he briefs Congress this week, but US officials have told reporters that Trump has given Mattis the authority to send about 4,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.

“It is more advisers, it is more enablers, fire support, for example,” Mattis insisted, in comments that had more than a touch of deja vu about them. Right now Trump’s plan for Afghanistan would appear to be stay and fight until the US and its allies win.

“The American people are weary of war without victory,” was how the President summed it up.

While Trump might be right about the weariness, his remarks still allude to that widespread and mistaken belief that Afghanistan is the kind of war in which a victory is achievable.

Inevitably once again the latest uptick in US troop deployment has raised the thorny old question of just how winnable the war in Afghanistan actually is, and whether these additional troops will make any real difference to a conflict that has now raged for 16 years?

Not for the first time some US officials have questioned the benefit of sending more troops to Afghanistan because any politically-palatable number would not be enough to turn the tide, much less create stability and security.

On the front lines the Afghanistan war has long since devolved into a stalemate between the Taliban on one side and the Afghan government and its Nato allies on the other. It’s a grind that currently claims the lives of a few thousand Afghan civilians annually, plus those of many hundreds more Afghan soldiers and police, not to mention Taliban fighters.

Washington, too, by now knows the human cost. To date, more than 2,300 Americans have been killed and over 17,000 wounded in the country. Even with these casualty figures the US, it seems, is hell-bent on staying the course in a war many firmly believe cannot be won in any conventional sense.

As Emile Simpson, a former British Army officer who is now a Research Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows wrote last week in the influential magazine Foreign Policy, Afghanistan is not the sort of war in which there is likely to be a decisive moment of victory.

“Rather, Afghanistan is best described as an armed policing operation,” Simpson concluded.

In making his case clear Simpson points out that in Afghanistan security forces regularly collect evidence from the battlefield – weapons, spent bullet cases, parts from improvised explosive devices, documents, cell phones, swab tests for explosive residue, and so on.

“Why? Because without evidence there will be no conviction in an Afghan court and the alleged insurgent will walk away, assuming he doesn’t bribe his way out after capture, as happens all too often,” says Simpson.

Fighting the Taliban today, just as the Russians did the mujahideen back in Oleg Kazic’s day, must at times feel like confronting a ghost enemy.

Elusive as the Taliban is, their military handiwork remains all too apparent. Only last week a Taliban suicide bomber struck at a bank not far from the US Embassy in Kabul, killing five people, as government employees lined up to withdraw salaries ahead of the religious holiday Eid al-Adha, one of the holiest celebrations on the Islamic calendar.

The extent to which the Taliban still operate with comparative impunity was also evident in one of their recently-released propaganda videos. It comprises of extensive footage of an ambush on an Afghan logistics convoy, including petrol tankers, in the eastern province of Wardak.

The brazen daylight ambush destroyed multiple Afghan vehicles and, despite the fact that US helicopters were nearby, the Taliban do not appear to have been targeted during the fighting.

Entitled Caravan of Heroes 13, the video appeared just last week and, undoubtedly no coincidence, it appeared simultaneously with news of the latest US troop deployments.

Manba al-Jihad Studio, the media arm of the Haqqani Network, the Taliban subgroup that is closely linked to al-Qaeda, produced the video. Though militarily crude in execution the ambush was highly effective and clearly meant as another sharp reminder to US and Afghan forces of the insurgents capacity to mount such attacks.

The simple, inescapable fact is that right now the war in Afghanistan is as far from being won as it has always been. What’s more, many Americans Generals know it and realise the job cannot be done by force of arms.

While Trump might insist that US troops “will fight to win” he would do well to heed the words of General David Petraeus who as far back as 2008, even before he took command of the Afghanistan war, announced that, “you don’t kill or capture your way out of an industrial-strength insurgency”.

Not to be outdone, the Taliban have always had their unique way of summing up the course of the war. Who can forget that famous quip by one of their leaders who observed that “Nato has the watches, we have the time”.

That much has certainly proved a truism on the battlefields these last 16 years. Both on the frontline and in the political arena the Taliban has shown itself to be a patient and formidable adversary.

Earlier this year, shortly after Trump became President, the Taliban’s principal spokesman, writing under the nom de plume Zabihullah Mujahid, published an open letter to the American leader.

In the letter he said he wished to share with Trump “a few realities about the ongoing war in Afghanistan”.

In a little under 2000 words Mujahid summed up his argument. The Taliban, he said, could not be defeated by the United States, the war was unnecessary, and the US should go home.

He concluded: “Perhaps some contents of this letter will prove bitter for your taste,” he goaded Trump. “But since they are realities and tangible facts, they must be accepted and treated as bitter medicine that is taken by patients out of fear of seeing their condition deteriorate.”

That deterioration, whatever Washington might argue to the contrary, continues. While prolonged, large-scale battles are rare, the war is still a slow relentless grind of guerrilla attacks, sporadic gun fights and the occasional push to overrun a population centre. Homemade improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or bombs, the Taliban’s weapon of choice, continue to spread.

“The reality is that the Taliban have the initiative,” says Jack Keane, a retired US Army vice-chief of staff.

And as if all this was not bad enough, the Islamic State has also made substantial inroads into the country, launching at least five major attacks in the capital, Kabul, in the past year.

However, the Taliban remains the prime insurgency force within the country. In many places where US and UK troops fought some of their hardest battles the Taliban are now in control. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Helmand Province.

In the upper Sangin Valley, where once I spent time embedded with 45 Commando Royal Marines who pushed the Taliban onto the back foot, the insurgents are back with a vengeance

In Babaji, that saw one of the biggest British air assaults in modern times, the Taliban are again firmly ensconced. Then there is Marjah, where in 2010 thousands of US, British and Afghan troops launched the largest joint offensive of the war – it too is now under Taliban control.

In places like Musa Qala, once scene of another major British action, the Taliban now run a veritable government.

“Even if you kill all the teenagers, the next generation will join the Taliban,” Abdul Jabbar Qahraman, a former presidential envoy to Helmand was quoted recently. “The insurgency used to be mostly a business. Now it’s also about revenge.”

So where then does this leave the latest US deployment? Quite clearly what this is all about is conflict management as opposed to conflict resolution. In 2011, the US had around 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, along with almost 10,000 British troops and 30,000 additional Nato personnel. But even this wasn’t enough to defeat the Taliban.

Conflict resolution, too, would require working out a deal with the Taliban, but even that option is seeded now with difficulties.

Having become a decentralised organisation with a core leadership overseeing various and sometimes competing factions, the Taliban no longer present the unified face needed for successful negotiations.

The short of all this is that Washington’s strategy of sending a few thousand troops now isn’t likely to make much of a difference.

In February earlier this year General John Nicholson, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, called the war there a “stalemate,” and that pretty much sums it up.

According to open-source intelligence analysts from the US based Stratfor group, the latest deployment now points to an effort simply to tip the scales in Kabul’s favour, ensuring a more favourable stalemate in which the Afghan Government can maintain control over key urban centres and more capably manage the insurgency.

This, it seems, is as good as it gets in Afghanistan these days. It’s a far cry indeed from the nation-building ambitions for the country that were once bandied around in the corridors of power in Washington and elsewhere.

As more US troops head for Afghanistan and in fashioning his “new” approach toward the war there, Trump insisted last week that the US will “learn from history.”

Though Trump might not realise it, it’s a bit late for that now.

My old Russian friend Oleg Kazic and his comrades also woke up to that fact too late. But at least they had the good sense to get out of Afghanistan before it cost them even more dearly.