‘Forever war’ in Afghanistan fading from Americans’ memory

‘Forever war’ in Afghanistan fading from Americans’ memory

Sunday marked the 17th anniversary of the start of the war in Afghanistan. The conflict has dragged on for so long that, very soon, America’s youngest soldiers could be fighting in a war that began before they were born.

Aside from a series of news articles, this 17-year milestone didn’t garner much attention around the world. And that’s no surprise, given that few people talk about the war in Afghanistan anymore. Not only is it a “forever war,” it is also a forgotten war —particularly in America, which has stationed troops in Afghanistan for nearly two decades.

I recently came across one of the most sobering US public opinion polls I’ve ever seen on Afghanistan. Back in July, a Rasmussen Reports survey found that 20 percent of “likely US voters” did not think that America was still at war in Afghanistan. And another 20 percent were not sure. This profound lack of awareness prevails even as US troops continue to die — including most recently a soldier on Oct. 4 — and billions of dollars continue to be spent.

It is easy to forget that, in its early weeks, the war made constant headlines. The conflict, launched in October 2001 in order to avenge the 9/11 attacks, achieved its initial goals — eliminating sanctuaries for Al-Qaeda and removing the group’s Taliban hosts from power — in relatively short order. For most Americans, the war back then was easy to understand and support. So what happened? How has it morphed from the good and necessary war to the endless and forgotten war?

Academics Tanisha M. Fazal and Sarah Kreps offered a convincing analysis in an August essay in Foreign Affairs magazine. Americans are largely disinterested, they wrote, because “the public is no longer directly affected by the war legally, personally, and financially.” The conflict, which had no formal declaration of war, is relatively informal and is thus “easily normalized and even obscured from public view.” Additionally, the lack of a draft means that most Americans have no personal link to the war.

“Today’s public,” Fazal and Kreps wrote, “is more insulated from the human costs of war than previous generations.” Finally, because of the lack of financial costs directly tied to the war — such as the war taxes imposed during the Vietnam War — its financial impact “is easily overlooked.”

There’s also a simpler reason why people don’t think or talk about the war: They simply can’t process it anymore

Michael Kugelman

These are all valid explanations. But there’s also a simpler reason why people, and particularly Americans, don’t think or talk about the war: They simply can’t process it anymore, and feel a need to push it away.

Consider how the dynamic of the war, and perceptions of it, have shifted over the years. After those early objectives were achieved, US policymakers became diverted by the need to prepare for the eventual intervention in Iraq in 2003. Ever since then, successive American leaders have struggled to articulate and justify exactly why the country’s military continues to stay in Afghanistan. Justifying that endless military presence has grown more difficult in recent years, as the war has taken a major turn for the worse. Afghan casualty rates are soaring, and drug harvests — which fund the insurgency — are breaking new records. The Taliban holds more territory than at any time since US forces entered Afghanistan. And American troops continue to die, albeit at a much slower rate than in previous years.

Little wonder this is so hard for Americans to process. Their country is fighting in and paying for a war with poorly defined objectives, which has gone from bad to worse, and has no end in sight. Dominic Tierney, writing in The Atlantic back in 2015, said it best: “Raising the topic of Afghanistan these days is like mentioning mortality. There’s a profound desire to change the subject.”

The Pew Research Center released a survey last week that found that about 50 percent of American adults believe the US has “mostly failed” in achieving its goals in Afghanistan.

Efforts are now afoot to try to launch a peace process with the Taliban to bring a merciful end to a war that can’t be won on the battlefield. This will be a hard sell to the insurgents, whose battlefield success gives them little incentive to stop fighting. Perhaps, in due course, Washington and Kabul will agree on a series of generous concessions that the Taliban can’t refuse.

However, getting the Taliban to say yes will take quite some time. It took more than 50 years to negotiate an end to the insurgency in Colombia, a war comparable in many ways to the one in Afghanistan.

In all reality, the war will most likely go on to reach its most dramatic milestone yet: Its 20th anniversary. And, sadly, few will likely be paying any attention.

  • Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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