x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Afghanistan is America's 'forgotten war'

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

A US Army soldier guards a position during a patrol operation in the village of Zindah Kheyl, Afghanistan. A returned soldier said he sometimes received letters from grade school students addressed to ‘the brave marines in Iraq’.
A US Army soldier guards a position during a patrol operation in the village of Zindah Kheyl, Afghanistan. A returned soldier said he sometimes received letters from grade school students addressed to ‘the brave marines in Iraq’.

KABUL // It was once President Barack Obama's "war of necessity". Now, it is the US's forgotten war.

Even though more than 80,000 American troops are still fighting in Afghanistan and dying at a rate of one a day, the conflict generates barely a whisper on the US presidential campaign trail.

Americans show more interest in the economy and taxes than the latest suicide bombings in a distant land. They are more tuned in to the political ad war playing out on television than the deadly fight still raging against the Taliban. Earlier this month, protesters at the Iowa State Fair chanted "Stop the war!" They were referring to one purportedly being waged against the middle class.

By the time voters go to the polls on November 6 to choose between Mr Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, the war will be in its 12th year. For most Americans, that is long enough.

Public opinion remains largely negative toward the war, with 66 per cent opposed to it and just 27 per cent in favour in a May AP-GfK poll.

"We're bored with it," said Matthew Farwell, who served 16 months in eastern Afghanistan, where he sometimes received letters from grade school students addressed to "the brave Marines in Iraq".

"We all laugh about how no one really cares," he said. "All the 'support the troops' stuff is bumper sticker deep."

Mr Farwell, 29, who is now studying at the University of Virginia, said the war is rarely a topic of conversation on campus.

"No one understands how to extricate ourselves from the mess we have made there," he said. "So from a purely political point of view, I wouldn't be talking about it if I were Barack Obama or Mitt Romney either."

Ignoring the Afghan war, though, does not make it go away.

More than 1,950 Americans have died in Afghanistan and thousands more have been wounded since President George W Bush launched the US assault in October 2001 in response to the September 11 attacks.

The war drags on even though Al Qaeda has been largely driven out of Afghanistan. Its charismatic leader Osama bin Laden was killed in a US 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 US invasion and the Taliban regime was toppled with few US casualties.

But the Bush administration's shift toward war with Iraq left the western powers without enough resources on the ground. By 2006 the Taliban had regrouped into a serious military threat.

Mr Obama had promised to refocus the US'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.

Over time, his administration has grown weary of trying to tackle Afghanistan's seemingly intractable problems of poverty and corruption.

While most Americans are sympathetic to the plight of the Afghan people, they have become deeply sceptical of President Hamid Karzai's willingness to tackle corruption and political patronage and the coalition's chances of "budging a medieval society" into the modern world, said Ann Marlowe, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute, a policy research organisation 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.

It has also been hard to show progress on the battlefield.

World War II had its Normandy, Vietnam its Tet Offensive and Iraq its Battle of Fallujah. Afghanistan is a grinding slough in villages and remote valleys where success is measured in increments.

Many argue that bin Laden's death justifies a quick US exit from Afghanistan.

"Those of us who have been at this for a long time continue to think that it's important, and that we have a chance now of a path forward with a long-term perspective that will produce the results," said James Cunningham, the new US ambassador to Afghanistan.

The US-led coalition's combat mission will wind down in the next few years, leading up to the end of 2014 when most international troops will have left or moved into support roles.

"I have heard others say that the danger that their spouses or children are serving in is just simply not being cared about," said Fred Wellman, a 22-year Army veteran who did three tours in Iraq. "I think a lot of veterans feel it is just forgotten."

Political satirist Garry Trudeau captured the apathy about the war in a comic strip this year showing a US servicewoman stationed in Afghanistan calling her brother back home.

After he complains that his children have the flu and how he's struggling to keep up with their hectic hockey schedule, he asks her where she's calling from. She tells him she's in Afghanistan.

"Oh, right, right ..." her brother replies. "Wait, we're still there?"