Have Americans Forgotten Afghanistan?

As the U.S. grapples with sequestration, the economy, and other policy battles, the war has fallen (even farther) from view.
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Soldiers from the U.S. Army's Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment go on patrol in Maiwand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, on January 31, 2013. (Andrew Burton/Reuters)

On January 20, men of the First Battalion 38th Infantry Regiment gathered at their outpost in southern Afghanistan. At Combat Outpost Sperwan Ghar in southern Kandahar, they held a memorial service for Army Sergeant David J. Chambers. A native of Hampton, Va., Chambers had been killed on January 16 by an improvised explosive device while on patrol. His commander said of him, "His subordinates trusted him, his peers learned from the example he set, and his superiors counted on him to get the job done." He had been wounded on a previous deployment to Afghanistan but he hadn't talked about this much because, as his mother said, "he never tried to worry us."

Afghanistan cries out for attention -- attention equal with the sense of priority that war has traditionally received in American politics.

The day that the soldiers saluted their fallen comrade at Combat Outpost Sperwan Ghar, Sergeant Mark Schoonhoven died at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, from wounds suffered in Afghanistan. Schoonhoven was from Plainwell, Michigan. His mother and oldest daughter had sat by his hospital bed for nearly six weeks hoping he would recover from the coma. His wife had returned to Michigan to look after the five children at home. He never recovered from the injuries suffered when insurgents detonated explosives as his vehicle passed. At his funeral his wife and his mother received folded flags and each of his children put a rose on his coffin.

Other than local coverage, there was little attention paid to these deaths. Certainly there was little notice in Washington. In August 2012, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta expressed his frustration over the absence of any discussion of the war in Afghanistan during the political campaigns. He explained at a Pentagon press briefing, "I thought it was important to remind the American people that there is a war going on."

This reminder takes on a great importance as Americans reflect on the 10-year anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq. As pundits and politicians debate the origins of that war, they will not dwell too long on the Afghanistan war that started a year and a half earlier -- and still continues.

Afghanistan did not become an issue during the fall presidential election campaigns, and the war seldom was a substantive issue in congressional races. Candidates scarcely discussed the war other than in passing references. In fact, they focused more on the putative next war in Iran. Ignoring the current war may have been politically or even morally derelict, but it was not of electoral consequence. Voters did not seem to consider war strategy as relevant to their election choices. Afghanistan did not figure in public opinion polls as a major issue and had not for some time.

Nonetheless, we could hope that after the election political leaders would finally focus on the war in Afghanistan. If it did not seem relevant to swing-state campaign strategy, it surely was an important issue in developing national military strategy. After all, there was a need to consider the objectives for the troops who remained there as well as the terms of the drawdown of these troops scheduled for the end of 2014.

Of course, fiscal cliffs, sequestered funds, the ongoing effects of the recession, the shocked reaction to the tragedy at Sandy Hook School, as well as the new political urgency to address immigration policy all took over the post-election debate and positioning. All of these were clearly important matters and there was genuine urgency associated with them. But Afghanistan also cried out for attention -- attention with the sense of priority that war has traditionally received in American politics.

Early in 2013 President Obama nominated Senator Chuck Hagel to replace the retiring Panetta as Secretary of Defense. This cabinet post was critical in the management of the war effort. The Senate confirmation hearings might have finally provided an opportunity for the sort of debate that Washington has had far too infrequently during America's wars in recent years.

Unfortunately, in the Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on January 31, Afghanistan was hardly mentioned. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon of the Council on Foreign Relations observed that those who watched the hearings on television "could be forgiven for forgetting that America is at war." She noted that "Apparently, so did their senators."

Most senators, especially the Hagel critics, as it turned out were focused beyond Afghanistan -- not beyond in terms of addressing the critical strategic questions regarding the mission of the post-Afghanistan military. In this case "beyond Afghanistan" meant the senators paid far more attention to a potential engagement with Iran than they did to the current war with the Taliban. And in the minds of many senators, equally troubling was the corollary question of how U.S. Iranian policy would support that of Israel. This in fact became the primary focus of the opposition to Senator Hagel. When Afghanistan did come up, it largely involved critical statements by Republicans, or slow-pitch questions by Democrats, and Senator Hagel's responses.

Perhaps the most pointed exchange in the hearing occurred not over future plans or concern about what we are asking our servicemen and women to do, but over views of recent history. Senator John McCain, who had been an aggressive advocate of the 2007 "surge" in Iraq, asked Hagel to answer "yes" or "no" to whether the surge had been successful. Hagel, who had been wounded and cited for bravery while serving as an enlisted man in Vietnam, would not.

When given the opportunity by Senator Bill Nelson to explain his position on the surge, it may not have received as much press coverage as the testy exchange with Senator McCain, but his reflections on this were revealing - and finally got to the basic question that should be asked whenever American troops are sent off to war.

"I had one fundamental question that I asked myself on every vote I took, every decision I made. Was the policy worthy of the men and women that we were sending into battle and surely to their deaths?...

I saw it from the bottom. I saw what happens. I saw the consequences and the suffering when we are at war."

The Senate hearing was not encouraging to those who hoped to have a real debate on future plans for the war in Afghanistan. Secretary Panetta's August inquiry seemed to still hang over the ongoing theatre. It is hard to produce evidence that most Americans or their representatives do indeed know there is a war going on. Obviously they do in a general, even an abstracted, way. And certainly they "care." But the war seldom intrudes into their world.

Wars do have costs. Human costs. It has become far too easy to ignore those when neither the wars nor those flesh-and-blood citizens who serve and sacrifice are acknowledged. Numbers on casualty reports do not bear human faces for most Americans.

The surge began in Iraq early in 2007. Between 2007 and 2011, 1,482 Americans died in Iraq, all but a few following the announcement of the new enhanced operation. Senator Hagel was correct. History will judge the final results of the surge. Andrew Bacevich recently observed of the surge, "avoiding defeat should not be confused with winning."

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James Wright is president-emeritus and professor of history at Dartmouth College. He is a former Marine and the author of Those Who Have Borne the Battle: A History of America's Wars and Those Who Fought Them.

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