We’re Still At War

It was once President Obama’s “war of necessity.” Now, it’s America’s forgotten war.

The Afghan conflict generates barely a whisper on the U.S. presidential campaign trail. It’s not a hot topic at the office water cooler or in the halls of Congress — even though more than 80,000 U.S. troops are still fighting here and dying at a rate of one a day.

Americans show more interest in the economy and taxes than the latest suicide bombings in a different, distant land. They’re more tuned in to the political ad war playing out on television than the deadly fight still raging against the Taliban.

Public opinion remains largely negative toward the war, with 66 percent opposed to it and just 27 percent in favor in a May Associated Press-GfK poll.

More recently, a Quinnipiac University poll found that 60 percent of registered voters felt the U.S. should no longer be involved in Afghanistan. Just 31 percent said the U.S. is doing the right thing by fighting there now.

Not since the Korean War of the early 1950s — a much shorter but more intense fight — has an armed conflict involving America’s sons and daughters captured so little public attention.

“We’re bored with it,” said Matthew Farwell, who served in the Army for five years including 16 months in eastern Afghanistan, where he sometimes received letters from grade school students addressed to the brave Marines in Iraq — the wrong war.

“We all laugh about how no one really cares,” he said. “All the ‘support the troops’ stuff is bumper sticker deep.”

Ignoring the Afghan war, though, doesn’t make it go away.

Two thousand Americans have died in Afghanistan, and thousands more have been wounded since President George W. Bush launched attacks on Oct. 7, 2001, to rout al Qaeda after it used Afghanistan to train recruits and plot the Sept. 11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Pa.

The war drags on even though al Qaeda largely has been driven out of Afghanistan and its charismatic leader Osama bin Laden is dead — slain in a U.S. raid on his Pakistani hideout last year.

Strangely, Afghanistan never seemed to grab the same degree of public and media attention as the war in Iraq, which Mr. Obama opposed as a “war of choice.”

Unlike Iraq, victory in Afghanistan seemed to come quickly. Kabul fell within weeks of the U.S. invasion in October 2001. The hard-line Taliban regime was toppled with few U.S. casualties.

But the Bush administration’s shift toward war with Iraq left the Western powers without enough resources on the ground, so by 2006 the Taliban had regrouped into a serious military threat.

As a candidate, Mr. Obama promised to refocus America’s resources on Afghanistan. But by the time he sent 33,000 more troops to Afghanistan in December 2009, years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan had drained Western resources and sapped resolve to build a viable Afghan state.

And over time, his administration has grown weary of trying to tackle Afghanistan’s seemingly intractable problems of poverty and corruption. The American people have grown weary too.

While most Americans are sympathetic to the plight of the Afghan people, they have become deeply skeptical of the Afghan people’s willingness to tackle corruption and political patronage and the coalition’s chances of “budging a medieval society” into the modern world, says Ann Marlowe, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute, a policy research organization in Washington.

“With millions of veterans home and talking with their families and friends some knowledge of just how hard this is has percolated down,” said Ms. Marlowe, who has traveled to Afghanistan many times.

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