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.

Umit Bektas/Reuters
Soldiers patrol in eastern Afghanistan in late November.

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.

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.

But the date seemed more important for those outside Kabul: the Taliban and the American people. The Taliban have shown little urgency in a peace process, perhaps calculating that they just need to wait until 2014, when the US says it will leave.

And in the US, the issue of ending the war has lost its potency because of a similar perception that it's winding down anyway.

And so Afghanistan has become something of a zombie war – a dead conflict that violently carries on. More than 400 US troops were killed there in 2011.

Rationale for keeping US troops

What originally animated this conflict was the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The Taliban regime failed to immediately turn over Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. The US overthrew the government but failed to get Mr. bin Laden until this past May. Even then, his death didn't end the war.

For journalists covering Afghan­istan, it's at times challenging to figure out the latest US reasons to remain there. Here are the rationales given to me most often in the field – all of which deserve more debate:

1. Make peace with the Taliban. Diplomats, in particular, talk up the importance of this in order to end the vicious cycle of war in Afghanistan. But 2011 has brought one setback after another to the peace process, from a Taliban imposter fooling NATO into thinking he was a top Taliban peace negotiator to a suicide bomber who killed Mr. Karzai's peace envoy by detonating an explosive hidden in his turban.

At press time, however, a breakthrough seemed possible: Reuters reported that after 10 months of talks, the US and the Taliban may be close to taking initial confidence-building steps necessary for more serious political talks to start.

2. Rid nuclear-armed Pakistan of militants. Military strategists suggest the Afghan war is crucial for cleaning up Pakistan – a country with nuclear weapons and one that plays host to a who's who of militants. The US wants Pakistan to end militant havens or to allow the US to do it for them.

But it's worth a more serious cost-benefit analysis to determine whether the terrorists left in Pakistan remain a major threat to the US homeland.

3. Reserve US jobs. Occasionally, a cynic would point out that the war doubled as a massive jobs program. As an American contractor in Kabul once confided to me over breakfast: "I am having a good war."

Should the war run for three more Christmases? That question can be answered in various ways. But as someone who has just returned to the US, I simply want it to be asked here.

As I enjoy the peace of this holiday season, so removed from the conflict zone I recently experienced, I remind myself that we should spare a few thoughts for those who won't be home for the holidays – and consider why exactly that is.

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