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2011 Reflections: What happened to the US debate on Afghanistan?

Seven Monitor correspondents reflect on the world's hot spots. In this installment, Ben Arnoldy is bothered by silence on the war because, unlike him, US troops can’t choose when to come home.

By Staff writer / January 1, 2012

Soldiers patrol in eastern Afghanistan in late November.

Umit Bektas/Reuters

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It's the middle of the night and I've just been awakened by an explosion. Standing in the dark of the Afghan guesthouse, I hear gunfire approaching.

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I am the only Westerner in Baharak, a far-flung town. My curiosity turns to fear. I start looking for a hiding spot. Then, mercifully, the guns fall silent.

During my three years in the region, it was times like these that made me consider whether I wanted to keep reporting on Afghanistan, where the US involvement is entering its 11th year. Was it worth the risks if few Americans seemed to be paying attention to the conflict?

Since my move back to Boston in November, I'm still bothered by the neglect of the war because, unlike me, roughly 90,000 US troops over there cannot choose when to come home – that's up to us, the electorate. So far, I have encountered few real debates or deep curiosity here about this mostly forgotten war, just the occasional sentimentality for the troops.

"When did you get back?" the receptionist at the dentist asked me recently. "They didn't have you stick around to cover the end of the war?"

"I wasn't going to stay another three years – or more," I said.

Confused, she said: "I thought the war just ended."

"Oh, that's Iraq," I said.

"Where were you again?" she asked. Afghanistan does feel impossibly far away here. Even the scenes that play back in my mind look a bit like the moon.

I remember piling into a light armored vehicle, a military version of a duck boat. I was embedded with a group of US Marines in the far south.

We sped into the wake of the lead vehicle, which was kicking up plumes of "moon dust" – the powdery sand in that part of Helmand Province – that covered anyone leaning out of the truck's open bed. I didn't have aviator goggles, so I faced in, looked down, and noticed the guys were wearing velcro straps around their thighs.

If we hit an improvised explosive device (IED), they explained later, they could quickly tighten the straps to serve as a tourniquet.

When that's the nature of daily life there, a daily conversation ought to be taking place here about whether such sacrifices are still worth the costs. Instead, it's just not a priority – at least, not for most.

The Republican debates, when they touch on war, are fixated on Iran. The "Occupy" protests are not focused on the ongoing war, either, though returned veterans got some attention for putting themselves between police and fellow protesters.

Explain this to me

I ask people why it's such a forgotten issue. "People are more concerned about the economy," said a PhD student I met recently. Like most Americans, she wants the United States out of Afghanistan. I asked whether she'll protest. She shrugged. "We'll be out by 2014 anyway, right?"

I was in the Afghan capital, Kabul, when President Obama announced a surge of US forces into Afghanistan in 2010. He made a fateful decision to also mention a drawdown date. The reason, US officials in Kabul said, was to light a fire under Afghan President Hamid Karzai: Get serious about good governance because the US won't be there forever.

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