And then the good war turned bad. Obama became disillusioned with the lack of progress in Afghanistan and looked for the quickest possible exit. By 2011, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had concluded that for Obama, “it’s all about getting out.” The president’s exhaustion mirrored the national mood. After a decade and a half of conflict, the public has moved beyond war weariness into a kind of numbing amnesia.
Americans, it seems, have agreed to a pact of forgetting. The term dates back to the death of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco in the 1970s, when Spaniards decided the best way to transition to democracy was el pacto del olvido, or a covenant to disremember the wounds of civil war and autocracy.
Americans are similarly blocking out the painful experience in Afghanistan. It takes a concerted effort—whether conscious or subconscious—to not think about a war where thousands of fellow citizens have died. Granted, the erasure is incomplete. The war flickers at the edges of people’s consciousness. But the mind rebels against giving the conflict any serious contemplation. Raising the topic of Afghanistan these days is like mentioning mortality. There’s a profound desire to change the subject. The popular narrative was once about saving Afghans. Now the focus is on getting American soldiers home, and Afghans have disappeared from the story.
Opinion polls suggest that public support for the war dropped to record lows in 2013. And revealingly, there have barely been any polls on Afghanistan in 2015. The media has also turned away from the war. To pick on the paper of record, the number of New York Times articles mentioning “Afghanistan” roughly halved during the first five months of 2015 compared with the same period in 2012.
Americans are instead debating whether to start a full-scale war against ISIS, a Wahhabi Islamist insurgent group in a strategic region bordering Iran. Few seem to have noticed that the United States is already at war with a Wahhabi Islamist insurgent group in a strategic region bordering Iran: the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Difficult wars often end in a pact of forgetting. When Saigon fell to Communist forces in 1975, journalist Martha Gellhorn said, “consensual amnesia was the American reaction, an almost instant reaction, to the Vietnam War.” In part, forgetting Vietnam was a subconscious effort to avoid pain. But it was also a very deliberate attempt to cast off the war. The U.S. Army actually destroyed its notes on counterinsurgency in a bid to consign the whole experience to oblivion.
In the case of Afghanistan, the lurch from fervor to amnesia has created a mismatch between U.S. interests and enthusiasm. America’s core goals in Afghanistan haven’t changed much over time: stopping international terrorists from using the country as a base and avoiding the destabilization of neighboring Pakistan. The American commitment to the campaign, however, has risen and crashed like a wave.