Army Spc. Gabriel D. Conde's short life spanned the history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001, from the euphoria over the fleeting early successes to the current doubts about the new strategy to break what U.S. commanders routinely call a "stalemate."
When Conde was six years old, then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said the Taliban had been defeated and the Afghan people were now free "to create a better future."
He was seven years old when then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, "We're at a point where we clearly have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilization and reconstruction activities."
When Conde was 12, then-President George W. Bush was at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan to declare that "the Taliban is gone from power and it's not coming back."
In 2009, when Conde was 13, then-President Barack Obama said he would "make the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban the top priority that it should be. This is a war that we have to win."
He sent 30,000 more U.S. troops into Afghanistan, with a timeline for their withdrawal.
Obama wanted the withdrawal to be complete by the time he left office, but he left behind about 8,500 U.S. troops to deal with a resurgent Taliban and a new enemy -- an offshoot of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria called Islamic State-Khorasan Province, or IS-K.
Last August, when Conde was 21, President Donald Trump announced a new strategy for Afghanistan that discarded "nation building" in favor of a plan to drive the Taliban into peace talks and a negotiated settlement.
Trump acknowledged that his initial impulse was to pull U.S. troops out completely, but he agreed to boost troop levels from 8,500 to about 14,000.
The presence of U.S. troops would now be conditions-based and not subject to artificial timelines. "We're going to finish what we have to finish. What nobody else has been able to finish, we're going to be able to do it," Trump said.
Last week, the Taliban announced the start of its 16th annual spring offensive.
On Monday, when Conde was 22, he was killed by small-arms fire in the Tagab District of Kapisa province northeast of Kabul. A second U.S. soldier was wounded.
Conde, of Loveland, Colorado, served with the 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), of 25th Infantry Division, based at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska. His unit was expected to return to Alaska at the end of May.
Also on Monday, the Trump administration took official note of the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan by granting political asylum to former Capt. Niloofar Rahmani, the first female fixed-wing pilot in the Afghan Air Force, who had been training in the U.S.
Through her lawyer, she had successfully argued to immigration authorities that the chaos in Afghanistan, and death threats against her and her family, made it impossible for her to return.
On the same day that Rahmani won asylum and Conde was killed, the latest in a wave of suicide bombings and terror attacks devastated the Shash Darak district of central Kabul in what Afghans call the "Green Zone."
Two suicide bombers had slipped past the estimated 14 checkpoints surrounding the district, Afghanistan's TOLOnews reported.
The first set off a blast and the second, reportedly disguised as a cameraman, joined a pack of reporters and photographers rushing to the scene and triggered a second explosion.
At least 30 people, including nine journalists, were killed. A 10th journalist was killed on the same day in an incident in Khost province. (Short biographies of the 10 journalists can be seen here.)
Mattis Put on Spot over Attacks
In response to Monday's events, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Army Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, echoed what other commanders and Pentagon officials have said so many times before during America's longest war.
They mourned the loss of a valorous soldier and the victims of the bombings. They said the strategy of increased airpower and the buildup of Afghan special forces is showing progress. They pledged to stay the course.
At a session with Pentagon reporters Monday, Mattis said the Taliban are "on their back foot."
The recent terror attacks show that they are desperate, he said.
"We anticipated they would do their best" to disrupt upcoming elections with a wave of bombings aimed at discouraging the Afghan people from voting, Mattis said.
"The Taliban realize the danger of the people being allowed to vote," he added. "Their goal is to destabilize the elected government. This is the normal stuff by people who can't win at the ballot box. They turn to bombs."
At a welcoming ceremony Tuesday for the visiting Macedonian defense minister, Mattis was challenged on how he could point to progress amid the wave of bombings and a recent series of watchdog reports on widespread and continuing corruption in Afghanistan.
"The message from this building has consistently been that the situation is turning around, that things are improving there," Mattis was told. "How do you reconcile this difference?"
"First, I don't know that that's been the message from this building. I would not subscribe to that," Mattis said. "We said last August NATO is going to hold the line. We knew there would be tough fighting going forward.
"The murder of journalists and other innocent people is a great testimony to what it is we stand for and more importantly what we stand against," he added.
"The Afghan military is being made more capable. You'll notice that more of the forces are special forces, advised and assisted, accompanied by NATO mentors. And these are the most effective forces," Mattis said.
"We anticipated and are doing our best and have been successful at blocking many of these attacks on innocent people but, unfortunately, once in a while they get through because any terrorist organization that realizes it can't win by ballots and turns to bombs -- this is simply what they do. They murder innocent people," he said.
For the long run, "We'll stand by the Afghan people, we'll stand by the Afghan government and the NATO mission will continue as we drive them to a political settlement," Mattis said.
Nicholson's Two-Year Plan to End the 'Forever War'
"Actions like this only strengthen our steadfast commitment to the people of Afghanistan," Nicholson, who doubles as commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, said after the bombings Monday and the death of Conde.
"We offer our sincere condolences to the families of those killed and wounded, and we stand with our Afghan partners in defeating those who would threaten the people of this country, whose cries for peace are being ignored," he said.
Like many of his troops, the 60-year-old Nicholson, a West Point graduate, has served multiple tours in Afghanistan. When he was confirmed by the Senate in March 2016 to succeed Army Gen. John Campbell as commander, he would go back to Afghanistan for the sixth time.
Since 9/11, "the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan has largely defined my service" in 36 years in uniform, he told the Senate.
Nicholson is the son of Army Brig. Gen. John W. Nicholson, also a West Point graduate, and is distantly related the legendary British Brig. Gen. John Nicholson (1821-1857), who fought in the First Anglo-Afghan War.
Early on in his command, Nicholson was at the forefront on the military advisers who convinced Obama to approve the expansion of the air campaign against the Taliban and IS-K. In February 2017, he began arguing for more troops to partner with the Afghan National Defense Security Forces (ANDSF).
Mattis later signed off on what was essentially Nicholson's plan. And Trump, in coordination with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, authorized it in an address to the nation last August.
In a video conference from Kabul to the Pentagon last November, Nicholson said it would take about two years to bring 80 percent of Afghanistan under government control and drive the Taliban into peace talks.
"Why 80 percent? Because we think that gives them [the Afghans] a critical mass where they control 80. The Taliban are driven to less than 10 percent of the population; maybe the rest is contested," Nicholson said.
"And this, we believe, is the critical mass necessary to drive the enemy to irrelevance, meaning they're living in these remote, outlying areas, or they reconcile -- or they die, of course, is the third choice," he said.
Nicholson's remarks contrasted with a simultaneous report from the Pentagon's Inspector General's office.
In his foreword to the IG's quarterly report, Acting IG Glenn Fine said, "During the quarter, Taliban insurgents continued to attack Afghan forces and fight for control of districts, and ISIS-K terrorists launched high-profile attacks across the country."
Fine added, "Internal political tensions increased in Afghanistan, and corruption remained a key challenge to governance despite positive steps by Afghanistan's Anti-Corruption Justice Center."
Fine also said that maintaining the accuracy of future IG reports made available to the public is becoming more difficult, since key statistical measures are now being classified.
"When producing this report, we were notified that information that was previously publicly released regarding attrition, casualties, readiness, and personnel strength of Afghan forces that we had included in prior Lead IG reports was now classified," Fine said. "In addition, we were advised that ratings of Afghan government capabilities were now classified.”
The Strategy -- What Strategy?
In announcing the strategy for Afghanistan last August, Trump made clear that he was doing so with grave misgivings.
"Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan. But nobody knows if or when that will ever happen," he said.
The skeptics are many. "Why would anybody call this a strategy? We declared we wanted to win, but we didn't change anything fundamentally that we're doing," retired Army Lt. Col. Jason Dempsey, who served two tours in Afghanistan, told Military.com.
The focus now, as it has been for years, is on building up the Afghan military into a more effective force capable of holding and administering territory retaken from the Taliban, he said, "but that army assumes the existence of a functioning government."
"We are creating a military that assumes the existence of a state that does not exist," said Dempsey, an adjunct senior fellow of the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security.
"What it boils down to is that we can't decide what we want," Dempsey said. "The only consensus we have on Afghanistan is that we don't want to lose."
In her analysis of the Trump administration's strategy, Brookings Institution scholar Vanda Felbab-Brown wrote that the president basically had three options -- "full military withdrawal, limited counterterrorism engagement, and staying in the country with slightly increased military deployments and intense political engagement."
"The option the Trump administration chose -- staying in Afghanistan with a somewhat enlarged military capacity -- is the least bad option," Felbab-Brown said.
"Thus, the Trump administration's announced approach to Afghanistan is not a strategy for victory," she said.
"Staying on militarily buys the United States hope that eventually the Taliban may make enough mistakes to seriously undermine its power," she said. "However, that is unlikely unless Washington starts explicitly insisting on better governance and political processes in the Afghan government."
Watchdog Reports Contrast with Claims of Progress
The goal of better governance is dependent on an Afghan military as the enabler, but the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said Tuesday that the number of Afghan soldiers and police has declined sharply in the past year.
In a report, SIGAR said that the combined strength of the military and police dropped nearly 11 percent over the past year, from about 331,700 in January 2017 to about 296,400 this January, well below the total authorized strength of 334,000.
"Building up the Afghan forces is a top priority for the U.S. and our international allies, so it is worrisome to see Afghan force strength decreasing," John Sopko, the head of SIGAR, told reporters.
At the end of January, insurgents controlled or had influence over 14 percent of the Afghanistan's 407 districts, SIGAR said, while the Afghan government controlled or influenced 56 percent. The remaining districts were contested, SIGAR said.
The report also noted the significant increase in the air campaign: "The total of 1,186 munitions dropped in the first quarter of 2018 is the highest number recorded for this period since reporting began in 2013, and is over two and a half times the amount dropped in the first quarter of 2017."
In addition, the report indicated that Nicholson's plan to bomb drug production centers and have the Afghan military interdict shipments in an effort to cut off Taliban funding was having little effect.
"From 2008 through March 20, 2018, over 3,520 interdiction operations resulted in the seizure of 463,342 kilograms of opium. But the sum of these seizures over nearly a decade would account for less than 0.05% of the opium produced in Afghanistan in 2017 alone," SIGAR said.
Since 9/11, the U.S. has invested more than $850 billion in the war and efforts to bolster the Afghan government, but a recent drumbeat of reports from SIGAR and the Pentagon Inspector General's office have highlighted widespread and continuing corruption.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last month, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, called on Army Secretary Mark Esper to justify a $50 million contract that SIGAR charged was used to buy luxury cars such as Alfa Romeos and Bentleys for Afghan officials and pay for $400,000 salaries for no-show jobs.
"Please tell me that a senator 20 years from now is not going to be sitting here and going, 'How in the world are taxpayers paying for Alfa Romeos and Bentleys?' " McCaskill said.
'We've Kind of Been Going About It Wrong'
As of March 2018, there were roughly 14,000 U.S. military personnel serving in Afghanistan as part of Operation Freedom's Sentinel, according to U.S. officials.
Of the 14,000, about 7,800 of these troops were assigned to NATO's Resolute Support mission to train, advise and assist Afghan security forces.
The 7,800 number reflects an increase of 400 personnel from the deployment of the Army's first Security Force Assistance Brigade, or SFAB, to Afghanistan.
In February, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats issued a report on what those troops can be expected to accomplish this year that was at odds with the upbeat assessments of Mattis and Nicholson.
"The overall situation in Afghanistan probably will deteriorate modestly this year in the face of persistent political instability, sustained attacks by the Taliban-led insurgency" and the "unsteady" performance of the Afghan military performance, the DNI's report said.
Afghan troops "probably will maintain control of most major population centers with coalition force support, but the intensity and geographic scope of Taliban activities will put those centers under continued strain," the report said.
Mattis and Nicholson have singled out the SFAB as a key component in reforming and refining the operations of the Afghan security forces.
The SFAB concept takes specially selected non-commissioned and commissioned officers, preferably with experience in Afghanistan, and assigns them the train, advise and assist role in place of conventional Brigade Combat Team units.
Before the deployment, Army 1st Sgt. Shaun Morgan, a company senior enlisted leader with the SFAB, told Stars & Stripes that there were no illusions about the difficulty of the job ahead.
"So, we've been kind of going about it wrong for a while, I think," Morgan said. "Maybe this is an opportunity to get on the right foot toward getting it right."
Previously in Afghanistan, "we couldn't get it through our heads that we weren't the fighters," Morgan told Stripes in a reference to the role of U.S. troops as partners and advisers to the Afghans who were to take the lead in combat.
"I think the bosses decided maybe this is the right shot, and it just makes sense to me," Morgan said.
The Afghans also were under no illusions on the continuing threats posed by the Taliban and other insurgents, and the risks they take to go about their daily lives.
Shah Marai Faizi, the chief photographer for Agence France-Presse in the Kabul bureau, was among the nine journalists killed in Monday's suicide bombings in Kabul. He was the father of six, including a newborn daughter.
Last year, Shah Marai wrote an essay titled "When Hope Is Gone" that was read in part on the Democracy Now cable program.
"Life seems to be even more difficult than under the Taliban because of the insecurity," he wrote. "I don't dare to take my children for a walk. I have five, and they spend their time cooped up inside the house. I have never felt life to have so little prospects, and I don't see a way out."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.