One of the oddest things about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is how little attention the American public has paid to them for the duration. Through the rose colored glasses of history, we generally accept that the public was involved in the Second World War, Korea, and Vietnam to an extent that seems strange and foreign to us today. The news that trickles out of the Middle East has been and remains infrequent, bad, and received with little interest.
Focusing on bad news is neither exclusive to the American media nor to these wars. Still, part of me wonders if the situation in Afghanistan is not somewhat more positive than we might think because only the bad news gets reported. Then the other parts of me remind Part 1 that bad news is getting reported because the news is almost exclusively bad.
Last fall there was an astounding piece of public opinion research done in Afghanistan, showing that 92% of the 1000 Afghan males surveyed have never heard of 9/11. Think about that. They have no idea whatsoever why the US military is in their country beyond perhaps a vague notion that we do not like the Taliban. Conducting a scientific poll in a primitive, war-torn country with an illiteracy epidemic presents major challenges, and I have no doubt that the polling agency would allow that the data and sample are imperfect. Regardless, even if 92% is an overestimate the data still underscore the reason that we are not winning and never will win the war there. It is impossible to win the hearts and minds of a population with no understanding of the geopolitical events that started the war. It's also impossible to win hearts and minds by blowing stuff (and people) up, but that goes without saying.
So bearing in mind that the Afghan population does not know why we are there – Does the American public even know? Do our leaders? – consider this kind of news in rapid succession:
– The US military is caught burning Korans. I believe the official explanation that this was accidental only because I cannot conceive of anyone being stupid enough to do it intentionally. Regardless, Afghans are understandably displeased.
– With that fiasco fresh in everyone's mind a US soldier goes on a one-man killing spree, killing sixteen. Most were women and children. While the US military will argue that it can't be judged by the deranged choice made by a single soldier, the Afghan public is unlikely to appreciate that fine point of distinction. As a scholar quoted in the article notes, "This is a fatal hammer blow on the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan. Whatever sliver of trust and credibility we might have had following the burnings of the Koran is now gone."
That is starting to look like a fair assessment. It's hard to spot the end of a war that had no coherent mission and no measurable progress from the beginning, but I'd say this is looking quite a bit like the endpoint. There appears to be little left for the US military to do but turn everything over to the sparse, corrupt, and weak Afghan government and then pull up stakes in the middle of the night and disappear. It's eerie how we were just talking about the Fall of Saigon a week ago; we may be re-enacting something similar in the near future.
Will anyone even notice? Have the GOP candidates – or any candidate for Congress, for that matter – devoted anything but token attention and interest to Afghanistan? No, they're all breathlessly laying out plans to start a war with Iran, taking care to stand behind the podium to hide their erections. The war nobody paid attention to, fought for reasons Afghans didn't understand and toward ends that Americans couldn't define, will finally get the full attention of the political system…when the candidates decide that it will be a convenient excuse to call Obama a quitter, pansy, cheese-eating surrender monkey, and betrayer of the American way.
And ten or fifteen or thirty years from now, we still won't have learned our lesson about saving countries by blowing them up and trying to teach their people to thank us for it.