Most Americans, looking at a globe, would be hard pressed to find Afghanistan. Americans on the whole know very little about the land or its people — and care even less. They know they’re at war over there, wherever it is, but if you were to ask what a Pashtun is or mention the name Abdullah Abdullah you would most likely get a blank stare.
Americans’ minds are on other things, like trying to figure out why, if the Great Recession is over, as Ben Bernanke seems to believe, the employment landscape still looks like a toxic waste dump.
A New York Times/CBS News poll found that eight years after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, there is a general feeling of disenchantment with U.S. military involvement there and a desire to bring it to an end. About half of all Americans believe that the war has had no effect on the threat of terrorism, and a majority want the troops out of there in two years.
Americans are tired of the war. Some of the young people currently being outfitted for combat were just 10 or 11 years old when al-Qaida struck the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. They are heading off to a conflict that most Americans are no longer interested in. The difference between the public’s take on this war and that of the nation’s top civilian and military leadership is both stunning and ominous.
A clash is coming. President Barack Obama may be reconsidering his idea of substantially increasing the number of American troops, but no one at the higher echelons of government is suggesting that anything other than a long, hard, tragic and expensive campaign lies ahead — with no promise of ultimate victory, or even a serious definition of what would constitute victory.
The two broad options being explored and argued about at the White House, the Pentagon and elsewhere are an all-out counterinsurgency strategy, which includes an emphasis on protecting and wooing the Afghan population, and a more narrow focus on counterterrorism. This is a distinction that is not nearly as clear cut as it sounds. Obama says the American goal in Afghanistan is to defeat al-Qaida and its extremist allies. That’s counterterrorism, and it’s a goal with which few Americans would argue.
But the administration also argues that it is impossible to defeat al-Qaida and eventually bring American troops home if the United States doesn’t fight the Taliban on the ground and simultaneously work to establish an effective government in Afghanistan with an armed force capable of protecting its own population. That’s classic counterinsurgency and nation-building.
The president’s goals, however you characterize the strategies under consideration, may or may not be achievable. But they are definitely not achievable in a short period of time, without the loss of a great deal of lives, and without a tremendous continued expenditure of American dollars.
The public has not been prepared for a renewed big-time, long-haul effort in Afghanistan. And if American casualties increase substantially, support for the war will diminish that much more. There is very little tolerance in the United States for the reality of war, which is why the images in the media are so sanitized. The public’s concept of warfare, for the most part, is the product of Hollywood movies about the heroics of the so-called Greatest Generation, and video games.
This disconnect between what the public is expecting, or willing to accept, regarding the war in Afghanistan and what the White House and the Pentagon are in fact planning is vast. Americans want their politicians to concentrate on the economy at home.
If the conflict in Afghanistan is as crucial to American national security as Obama has said, then he needs to make that case to the public, clearly and compellingly. A presidential call to arms to meet a threat of that magnitude should surely overshadow the national debate on health care.
Otherwise, let’s explore creative alternatives to endless warfare and start bringing the weary troops home.