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State Department diplomat talks optimism for operations in Afghanistan

Henry S. Ensher (Syracuse University)
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After more than 10 years of work in policy around Afghanistan, State Department diplomat Henry S. Ensher said he saw some signs of progress toward preventing the country from being used again as a terrorist safe haven.

“This is the first time since I’ve been dealing with Afghanistan that I think there’s a chance to get to a resolution, that we can actually achieve the objectives,” Mr. Ensher said. “Every other time I’ve been there, every other time I’ve worked on it, I have felt we have been doing the best we can to hold on, to improve the situation to work on a very wide variety of topics.”

Mr. Ensher noted there is reason some might be skeptical of such a sentiment.

“Every American who pays any attention to the topic has heard us (say), ‘We’re turning the corner, this is the year,’” Mr. Ensher said.

However, he said the military efforts of the U.S. and its coalition partners, and new strategy in the region that moves from time-related goals, are having an impact on the Taliban.

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“We’re not going anywhere, that they cannot just outwait us,” Mr. Ensher said. “That we’ve applied enough military pressure for them to find the possibility of a deal with the Afghan government to maybe be attractive.”

Mr. Ensher, deputy assistant secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, spoke to the Times about Afghanistan after a presentation he made Friday at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. His work covers a region that also includes Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

Soldiers from Fort Drum have had a continual presence in Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001, and soldiers from the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division are currently in the country.

Despite the push for peace talks, Afghanistan has seen a series of deadly attacks in the last week, including a suicide bomber attack Wednesday that killed more than 30 people at a Persian New Year event in Kabul, and a bombing Friday that killed 14 at a wrestling match in Lashkar Gah. Last year, 3,438 civilians were killed and 7,015 wounded during fighting in Afghanistan, according to the United Nations.

In addition to the Taliban, Afghan and coalition military forces are pushing back against elements of ISIS that have attempted to establish themselves in the country.

Mr. Ensher said a goal of establishing peace and stability may be preferable to one of getting out of the country.

“Everybody going home would be nice, that’s a good thing, but as a bare minimum, it’d be good if we stopped dying, we could be in a place and stop dying, and stop spending quite so much money. That’s a good first step,” Mr. Ensher said. “We get to a peace settlement, and the Afghan government asks us for some help to make sure that it’s not going to come unglued, and to make sure that ISIS isn’t going to sneak back into places they haven’t gotten into for a while, maybe that’s an OK mission for a while.”

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Asked about fatigue for America’s operations in Afghanistan, America’s longest war, Mr. Ensher said “folks don’t pay the kind of attention that they used to.”

“It’s still going on, it’s still a major preoccupation of the State Department and (Department of Defense) and (National Security Council), and getting it wrong would present a major national security risk,” Mr. Ensher said.

The New York Times contributed to this report.

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© 2018 Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, N.Y.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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