By ZACH ROSENBERG
Last night I was gathered together with a group of people that grew up in the shadow of Vietnam, people who were just coming of age as that war was coming to an end. One man told how his high school chemistry class was never about chemistry — his teacher preferred long rants about the war. A woman remembered how her school’s headmistress began each Monday in front of a large map of Vietnam, explaining and contextualizing what happened there the previous day.
I was in a North Carolina high school on 9/11. I got out of class to find everyone in our tiny school gathered in front of the TV, talking quietly about what happened, worrying about friends and relatives. Even then, before the second tower collapsed, “Osama bin Laden” was the name on everyone’s lips. It quickly became clear — there was never much doubt about it — that the U.S. would invade Afghanistan, a country in which no invader had ever found success. My Quaker school’s first response was to bring in a Vietnam-era activist, to explain to us how to successfully register for conscientious objector status in the event of a draft. At that time there was real fear, so strong as to be tangible. By the time of the invasion almost everyone I knew, regardless of their previous knowledge of world affairs, were familiar with the leadership of the U.S. military, the Taliban and Al Qaeda; they could discuss Tomahawk cruise missiles, M-4s and F-117s; they knew the difference between a battalion and a company of soldiers; they could describe in some detail the history of the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.
Eight years later, in my office in Washington, D.C., I asked my co-workers what they thought about recent revelations concerning Ahmed Karzai, and none of them knew who he was. My co-workers are uniformly intelligent, bright, informed, ambitious, politically aware and politically active, but none knew President Hamid Karzai’s brother, a major heroin smuggler, criminal and political figure in his own right. He is said to be heavily involved in all aspects of poppy cultivation, refining and shipment. He allegedly has effective control over large parts of southern Afghanistan, including some areas where the Taliban are strongest. He is rumored to have been instrumental in setting up the massive fraud that characterized his brother’s success in the recent — and still undecided — elections. He is also said to be paid by the U.S. CIA and Special Forces, which many believe to be in direct opposition to the population-centric counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy aimed at winning Afghan hearts and minds. In this city, one of the political and military capitals of the world, some of the best and brightest don’t know the major players in Afghan politics (a couple guessed right). I assume that names like Hakimullah Mehsud and Jalaludin Haqqani would be greeted similarly.
I consider myself a relatively educated person in comparison to the general populace, at least as regards Afghanistan. By no means am I an expert, nor would I claim to be, but I can point out Lashkar Gah on the map, recite arguments for and against drone attacks in Pakistan, name Karzai’s top ministers, understand the difference between Pashtuns and Uzbeks, etc., I read things like the AfPak channel and Abu Muqawama every day. I read the news closely enough to know some of the differences between CJ Chivers and Rajiv Chandrasekharan, among others. I attend talks by experts when I can, and read their papers closely. But it is easy for me to lose track of who is Pashtun and who is Hazara, which region the 82nd Airborne is in, or whether the latest drone strikes were in North or South Waziristan. I keep track out of a combination of personal interest and guilt for not knowing, but by no means is my knowledge essential or even welcome. In terms of self-interest, I should really be practicing Spanish and reading proposed Senate bills. I can’t blame my colleagues for not knowing these things, it’s of no help to them either.
Washington has more at stake in Afghanistan than any other Western city, and the reminders surround us, but there is little need for those who are not directly involved to seek information. I see military personnel of all ranks every day, yet for almost all practical purposes Afghanistan has very little impact on me. I can scarcely blame my colleagues for not knowing the major players there, as a general overview seems to suffice. And my knowledge proves virtually useless, little but trivia. Even the recent spate of American deaths bring nothing but a new day. Another few spaces were dug in Arlington National Cemetery, a nice picture of President Obama came out, and that was it. People still went out to lunch, danced in the clubs and watched the World Series. Even the flags stayed at full mast.
I can speculate as to why this is. First, of course, there is no draft, and thus no threat to most people, in the outcome of the Afghan war. A popular argument in favor of a draft is that the population will be unwilling to participate in violent conflicts since most of them will face losing a friend or family member, and this makes intuitive sense. Now we sacrifice virtually nothing except difficult-to-quantify abstractions like global goodwill and billions in tax revenue. Out of sight really can mean out of mind. Second, people are tired of hearing about the war. Eight years have passed since the invasion of Afghanistan, six since the invasion of Iraq. The wars have been in the news every day, though to varying degrees. After a while, it’s easy for a person with no stake in the matter to lose track of where an American dies and why. The small and steady number of deaths is also a factor.
The trickle of American deaths means that, whether one reads the news or not, not more than a handful of troops have been killed. This October was one of many months to mark the highest number of U.S. troops killed. Whether the battles are of low or high intensity — some fighting has been very heavy — the number of U.S. deaths is always low. Nearly a thousand American troops have been killed, which contrasts starkly to the 50,000 in the same time period in Vietnam. There is also no clearly identifiable enemy. Saying “the Taliban” is not a sufficient description — it might describe one of any number of factions, fighting for various reasons. Their tactics, IEDs and ambushes, and general hostility towards American media do not lend to putting an identifiable face on things. And of course, the characteristic American ignorance, if not disdain, for international affairs, should not be underestimated.
Yet another factor, minor though difficult to overlook, is that Americans are tired of losing wars. The rapid fall of the Taliban government in Kabul and the Iraqi government in Baghdad were considered total successes, and then largely dismissed until it was no longer possible to ignore the entrenched insurgencies that followed. Americans are tired of war, but they are also tired of failure, so that an announcement of success is greeted with skepticism and an announcement of failure with a shrug.
When asked about the most important issues, American routinely rank Afghanistan among the lowest, despite the heavy price paid (and yet to pay) and the ongoing debate over the course of the war. I do not have a suggestion as to whether to withdraw from Afghanistan or stay, but I do know that many Americans don’t really care one way or the other. Either way, as a society, we won’t really be watching while Afghanistan burns.
(Photo: AFP by way of The Big Picture)