After Afghanistan: Will Americans forget it?

Once upon a time, 'Afghanistanism' meant obscure and mystifying. That hasn't been true since 9/11. As American troops begin to disengage, will Afghanistan revert to an 'ism'?

Elisha Page/Argus Leader/AP
Maj. Jason Kettwig of Milbank, S.D., greeted his children at a Sioux Falls, S.D., homecoming on May 3.

Newspaper editors once had a name for complicated dispatches from the far reaches of the globe. They would glare from under their eyeshades and harrumph about “Afghanistanisms.”

What they meant was that a newspaper should serve its local community first and foremost, not wring its hands about tribal intrigue in a remote and mystifying land.

They had a point. From politics to charity to the environment, it’s usually best to pay attention to the home front first. To fixate on the far-away and ignore the up-close and personal is to be like dear Mrs. Jellyby in Charles Dickens’s novel “Bleak House.” She fretted about the natives of Borrioboola while neglecting her own needy family.

But it’s no small irony that terror attacks plotted in Afghanistan and carried out almost 10 years ago triggered a response that turned a word once synonymous with obscurity into an urgent reality for Americans, Europeans, and others who previously hadn’t given it a second thought.

Since October 2001, 2,501 coalition troops – more than half of them American – have been killed in Afghanistan, and tens of thousands injured. Casualties among Afghan civilians range into the tens of thousands. Across the United States, people know soldiers, sailors, marines, and Air Force personnel who have fought in what is now America’s longest war.

From Kabul to Tora Bora, Kandahar to the Panjshir Valley, the region’s geography, politics, and ethnic complexities are no longer quite as mystifying as they once were. Just as an earlier generation knew where Da Nang and the Iron Triangle were – and the generation before that knew Okinawa and Bastogne – Afghanistan has etched itself into present-day thinking. Ten years will do that.

Though the famed “graveyard of empires” is still violent and unstable, the Pentagon knows that public opinion – American and Afghan – and growing concerns over the cost of the $7 billion-a-month operation weigh heavily against continuing it. Next month, the first, modest troop reductions are likely to begin. By mid-decade, under current planning, coalition militaries will be mostly gone.

As the grueling engagement winds down, it seems fair to ask whether Afghanistan will slip back into being a word for remote irrelevance – a question I put to John Maxwell Hamilton, provost at Louisiana State University and author of “Journalism’s Roving Eye: A History of American Foreign Reporting.”

Jack has tracked the ebbs and flows of America’s engagement with the world. I worked with him in the mid-1980s when he published a series in the Monitor called “Main Street America and the Third World.” It was a carefully reported project that showed how local the global can be. He was one of the first reporters to mark the rise of overseas call centers, the offshoring of American industries (he looked at shoemaking), and the globalization of public-health concerns.

Over time, he says, the line between foreign and domestic has increasingly blurred in the American mind. A global consciousness emerged. Americans generally understand that from energy to capital markets to the components of their cars, the planet is interconnected. Still, the huge human and financial costs of the wars of the past decade may have prompted many to turn away from the world. It’s not quite a new isolationism as much as a wish for a timeout.

“If we had really crossed the threshold where Americans were globally conscious, we wouldn’t see editors downplaying foreign coverage once again,” Jack says.

Editors don’t deserve all of the blame. They have detected declining reader interest and adjusted. Distance from home, after all, has always amplified a place’s foreignness whether you live in a yurt in central Asia or a split-level in Middle America. As troops come home, Afghanistan is likely to become more of an ism again.

But any reasonable person can also see that local versus global need not be mutually exclusive. It all depends on how you define your community. From its earliest days, the Monitor has known that. When we think of our community, we think of “all mankind.” War or no war, that will keep Afghanistan in our pages in the years to come.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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