Afghan combat puzzle: Why have Americans been so patient over their longest war?
By Andrew Malcolm
Posted 09:12 AM ET
You may have seen news reports about Americans tiring of the war in Afghanistan, now our nation's longest ever.
But what is surprising -- and hasn't really been reported -- is that it's taken so long for a U.S. population famously addicted to instant gratification to tire of a deadly war that has so far claimed the lives of 2,313 countrymen and women. And another 1,110 fallen allies.
In previous wars since 1950 it's been a mere matter of months before Americans were doubting the reasons for combat. Politically, the unpopularity of prolonged fighting with its human and financial tolls was responsible for two Democrat presidents (Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson) abandoning their political careers and second-term ambitions over the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
The first Gulf War to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation ended so quickly, not by accident, that President George H.W. Bush saw his popularity soar briefly above 90%.
For his son, however, the Iraq war to oust Saddam Hussein proved much longer, painful, costly and controversial. And it played a large role in the widespread voter dissatisfaction that turned both houses of Congress over to Democrats in the 2006 midterm elections.
Strangely, not so with the enduring Afghanistan conflict.
It's been 4,523 days, as of this morning, since U.S. and other allied troops moved into Afghanistan less than a month after the shocking 9/11 attacks planned and rehearsed there.
The initial motivation, besides cathartic and widely-supported revenge, was to deny the safe haven of that perennially lawless land for any further terrorist attacks on the homeland. A mission largely accomplished so far.
However, under both Republican and Democrat presidents desirous of leaving a stable country behind, that short-term mission morphed into a much more complicated one of nation-building in a geographical territory that isn't a nation.
It's a collection of feudal fiefdoms with shifting tribal alliances and allegiances skillfully manipulated by Taliban and al Qaeda forces. There, even the concept of one nation is a basic threat to the historic power of regional warlords, who have benefited from more than a quarter-century of constant conflict fed by outside forces.
Beginning as a political nobody in Chicago in 2002, Barack Obama made enormous political profit off his opposition to the Iraq War. Anti-war sentiment among Democrats played a significant role in his defeating Hillary Clinton in the primary campaign of 2007-08.
Both Obama and Joe "I Like Trains" Biden vociferously opposed Bush's 2007 Iraqi troop surge that ultimately produced the military victory for Obama to squander later with no residual forces to give locals time to train.
To Obama, Afghanistan was always the right war against bona fide terrorists, not some pernicious dictator. The Nobel Peace Prize winner would, at Clinton's urging, later change his mind about that and oust Libya's Moammar Gadhafi. That created a new lawless safe haven for al Qaeda types.
And Obama would also order not one, but two of his own troop surges into Afghanistan. Explaining to West Point cadets his decision to dispatch 30,000 more troops, Obama took 5,000 words. Ominously, not one of them was "victory."
Also ominously for obvious political reasons, the perennially campaigning Obama simultaneously announced U.S. forces would depart by the end of 2014, clearly signaling how long the Taliban need only wait for a power vacuum.
In his new book "Duty," Robert Gates, Obama's Defense secretary, said the president had private doubts about his own strategy's efficacy even as he ordered the surge.
And now the American public appears to have joined Obama. Gallup has just discovered that for the first time since 2001 a plurality of Americans now believe Afghanistan was a mistake, 49%-48%, It's been a slow change, but that's a big difference from the 6% who saw a mistake in 2002 and the 93% who believed in the conflict then.
So, what's taken so long? First, it was an extremely popular military action after the 9/11 surprise attacks. Polls don't exist from the Pearl Harbor aftermath, but safe to suspect President Roosevelt's declaration of war was similarly approved.
Second, this war has been a bipartisan affair with presidents of both parties prosecuting it, though Obama has been more vigorous. That's reflected in the casualties. Although Obama has been president for only 37% of the war's duration, he's overseen 73% of the fatalities.
The Iraq war drew more presidential -- and media -- attention and support from Bush, fueled in part by the controversy over the inability to find Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, as promised, and bitter debate over the troop surge.
Obama's attention to troops in Afghanistan has been more sparing, and, thus, so has the media focus. Until Benghazi, the media could easily parrot Obama's campaign claims that al Qaeda was on the run. And the assassination of Osama bin Laden created a sense of closure on 9/11, a false one as al Qaeda affiliates proliferate.
Unlike the daily televised bloodbath of draftees in Vietnam, no one is in today's U.S. military involuntarily. And despite modern communications technology permitting live battlefield reports, did we mention the absence of daily, even hourly, media updates from Afghanistan on casualties or anything really?
Last May Obama pronounced a welcome, but phony end to what he said was our perpetual war footing. So, why then are airport security screeners still groping passengers and the feds issuing regular terrorist alerts about shoe and toothpaste bombs?
In that rosy outlook Obama reflected a widespread public fatigue with lethal foreign entanglements, except for the secret boots on the ground in Africa, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere.
But Obama's rhetorical relief comes at a heavy cost. He vows that "all options" remain on the table regarding Iran's drive for nuclear weapons. Obama drew a red line prohibiting Syrian strongman Bashir al Assad from using chemical weapons in his civil war. And Obama warned Ukraine's leaders to ease up on protesters.
As a result, Iran continues its weapons and rocket research. Obama did nothing when Assad used chemical weapons. He's done nothing since Assad broke his promise to relinquish those weapons. And within hours of Obama's Ukraine warning, dozens more perished in Kiev streets.
Other than that, the world's bad guys are shaking in their boots over the empty threats of America's commander-in-chief.