August 29, 2012
In 2006, the Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran published a 336-page indictment of the Iraq war, "Imperial Life in the Emerald City." According to Nielsen BookScan, it sold more than 120,000 copies in hardcover and paperback. Two months ago, he published a 368-page indictment of the Afghanistan war, "Little America." It has since sold roughly 5,000 copies in hardcover.
So little attention is the public paying that even attacks by best-selling authors on the current conflict are dismissed with a collective shrug.
Yet there are still more than 80,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and every day soldiers and Marines, sailors and aircrews walk, drive and fly into harm's way. News coverage is sparse—save for occasional disasters such as "green on blue" attacks by Afghan security forces on coalition personnel or terrorist attacks in Kabul that only serve to confirm the popular perception that the war is lost.
The public's disengagement isn't all bad (more on that to come). But it is a bit surprising given that at its inception, in October 2001, this was one of the most popular conflicts the U.S. had ever undertaken. Despite the conventional wisdom that toppling the Taliban would be neither fast nor easy (remember the dread "Afghan winter"?), almost all Americans supported the decision to fight after 9/11.
But when the Taliban fell far faster and more easily than expected, complacency crept in. Convinced that the war was over, President George W. Bush refused to commit the resources necessary to rebuild Afghanistan's government and security forces. This gave the Taliban, secure in its Pakistan sanctuaries, an opening to stage a resurgence.
By 2008, security in Afghanistan was deteriorating and both Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama promised to send more resources. As president, Mr. Obama delivered on his campaign pledge by almost tripling U.S. forces—to 100,000 from 34,000.
But the Obama surge did not put the war front-and-center in American politics. The president is willing to order troops to fight but not to talk about why they fight or how their fight is going. His only major speech on Afghanistan this year was May 1, to mark the signing of a strategic partnership accord in Kabul. Visitors to the White House website would be hard-pressed to find any mention of Afghanistan. The one tab under "defense" issues is for "End of Iraq War."
There is much speculation about why Mr. Obama won't talk about the war. My theory is that it is because he doesn't have a coherent message to deliver. His rationale for the troop buildup was to fight al Qaeda—notwithstanding that the terrorist group has a minimal presence in Afghanistan. He never spoke of defeating the Taliban, our actual enemies in Afghanistan, and he denied that U.S. troops would fight a "counterinsurgency" or engage in "nation-building" even while they were doing just that.
His conduct of the war has been ambivalent as well. He agreed in 2009 to send more troops, but fewer than the generals wanted. He said yes to 30,000 when Gen. Stanley McChrystal asked for at least 40,000. Then he decided to pull the surge troops out faster than the generals wanted—by the end of this September rather than waiting until at least the end of the year as then-Gen. David Petraeus advised.
Reluctant to tell the American people he is pursuing a split-the-difference policy in Afghanistan—doing just enough to avert immediate defeat but not enough to secure certain victory—Mr. Obama instead has fallen uncharacteristically quiet. His silence hasn't been filled by partisans of either political persuasion. Liberals vehemently oppose the war, but their opposition is muted because the war is being pursued by one of their own. Conservatives are uneasy because they sense the president isn't doing enough to win. But they are not sure what alternative to offer, so their criticisms too are muted.
That makes Afghanistan the "Who Cares?" war. Few, it seems, do—except for service personnel and their families. According to polls by the New York Times/CBS News and others, more than 60% of Americans think that the U.S. should not be at war in Afghanistan, but there is no intensity to the opposition. There are no antiwar marches and the war isn't an election issue. It is almost as if the war isn't happening at all.
Ideally, U.S. troops should fight with wholehearted domestic support. But public apathy isn't necessarily fatal for the war effort. It even presents a potential opportunity to finally get Afghanistan "right"—or at least as right as possible at this late stage.
We will need to maintain at least 30,000 troops in Afghanistan past 2014 to advise and assist local security forces in their battles against weakened but undefeated foes. That commitment would be hard to sustain in the face of active domestic opposition. But it may be possible in today's atmosphere of apathy. Just as there is little public awareness of troop deployments in Kosovo or South Korea or the Sinai Peninsula, so troops could conceivably stay in Afghanistan for years—as long as they don't take many casualties.
That may sound improbable now, but recall that the U.S. troop presence in Iraq had fallen off the radar screen by the time it ended last year. From a domestic standpoint, the U.S. could have continued the deployment indefinitely. The problem was that Mr. Obama didn't really want to (that ambivalence again) and therefore couldn't convince the reluctant Iraqis to go along. But the Afghans, lacking Iraq's oil, are more eager for foreign protection. Thus we could still arrive at the right policy in Afghanistan, even if the public isn't paying attention.