[This year’s presidential campaign, in which mass deportations and the NATO alliance are on the table, has hardly touched it. When Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump squared off at a recent televised forum on national security issues, they were surrounded by an audience of veterans, many of whom had fought in Afghanistan, but the war barely came up.]
By Max Fisher
American soldiers during Afghan National Army training at Camp Bastion
in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in March. This year’s presidential
campaign has hardly touched the war in Afghanistan.
Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times
The United States will soon mark 15 full years of war in Afghanistan, but you wouldn’t know it from the political discourse.
Democrats and Republicans seem to have something of a rare, if unspoken, truce on the subject. Even amid deepening partisan polarization, with the most frivolous issues seized for political gain, no one seems eager to discuss a war that is still costing American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars.
This year’s presidential campaign, in which mass deportations and the NATO alliance are on the table, has hardly touched it. When Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump squared off at a recent televised forum on national security issues, they were surrounded by an audience of veterans, many of whom had fought in Afghanistan, but the war barely came up.
And though the election has grown most heated over terrorism and immigration, the candidates showed rare restraint on Monday, when the police arrested an Afghan-born American citizen, Ahmad Khan Rahami, on suspicion of planting bombs in Manhattan and New Jersey.
Mr. Trump’s response was typically harsh and Mrs. Clinton’s typically detailed, but neither had much to say about Afghanistan. That is a conspicuous and newfound prudence for both candidates, who have been eager to discuss Syria and Iraq immediately after terrorist attacks linked to those countries.
Whether or not investigators find connections between these bombings and American action in Afghanistan, it is increasingly apparent that America’s public and policy makers alike would rather not address their faraway, largely failed war.
Neither party has an incentive to call attention to this bipartisan failure. Neither has a better policy to offer. And neither sees any political gain in raising it. Voters, entering their fourth consecutive presidential election with the United States at war, seem happy to pretend that the Afghan war, which has killed more than 2,300 American service members, doesn’t exist.
It is not hard to see why Americans shun the topic. They have experienced the war as a long series of bitter failures and of noble missions that turned out not to be. They have disengaged out of moral self-preservation as much as exhaustion.
The result is an awkward national silence whenever Afghanistan’s chaos inevitably imposes itself on our attention, like a family pretending not to hear the troubled relative pound the Thanksgiving table.
For decades, leaders portrayed Afghanistan as a beautiful but lawless land to which the United States would bring order and American values, somewhat similar to the old Western frontier. Their adventure began in 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded and the United States armed Afghan rebels. President Ronald Reagan called this “a compelling moral responsibility of all free people” and a battle for “the human spirit.” Rebel leaders were romanticized and taken on tours of American churches, according to “The Looming Tower,” a book by the journalist Lawrence Wright.
Those rebels turned against one another in a long civil war that gave rise to the Taliban. Americans were then sold on invading Afghanistan in 2001, to bring the Sept. 11 attackers and their accomplices to justice. The Taliban government quickly fell, raising a question that became obvious only after it was raised: Now what? What should take the Taliban’s place, and how to make it stick despite the group’s continued support?
Iraq quickly distracted attention and resources from the Afghanistan question until 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president while promising to end the former and win the latter. Afghanistan became the good war. Americans were sold on promoting democracy and, later, on saving the women — an ambition captured by a 2010 Time magazine cover showing an Afghan woman who had been mutilated by Taliban officers.
But practice did not match the ideals. Seeking allies where it could, the United States often directly empowered warlords whose corruption, drug trafficking and violence seemed little better than the Taliban’s. Drones proliferated overhead and airstrikes killed civilians on the ground, provoking anguished debate at home. Pakistan, at once Washington’s closest and least reliable ally in the war, played both sides.
Americans were left feeling they had compromised their morality, and to little gain. As the 9/11 attacks receded more than a decade into the past, it became harder to argue for the war’s necessity. American gains against Al Qaeda only drew more attention to the loftier goals that never seemed to advance.
The operation so completely failed to uproot the Taliban or build a functioning government that American officials became convinced that withdrawal would lead to total collapse — and that collapse would be unacceptably costly. With even the most meager goals unmet, the Obama administration settled on something even less ambitious.
Douglas Ollivant, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, put it bluntly when he told The New York Times last year that Americans had quietly decided on spending “somewhere between $10 and $20 billion per year in perpetuity for the privilege of Afghanistan not totally collapsing.”
That is not an inspiring mission. But voters, tired of inspiring Afghanistan missions, have stopped asking why we’re still fighting. So political leaders have not bothered to contort themselves into providing an explanation. Rather, in regular-as-clockwork annual speeches, Mr. Obama has simply delayed or slowed troop withdrawals.
Normally, an opposition party might profit from Mr. Obama’s broken promises and policy disappointments. But in 2012, neither he nor his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, showed much desire to debate Afghanistan. Both candidates offered policies that were functionally the same: withdrawal.
Neither wanted to promise a solution, knowing he would have to deliver. Neither offered a way to end the chaos before departing, or to cope with its consequences once American troops had left.
Four years later, the country is barely standing, the Taliban is resurgent and refugee outflows are high. The United States has assumed an unspoken role as indefinite occupier, with just enough troops to stave off Afghanistan’s implosion but not enough to make that implosion any less inevitable. The question of whether the United States should play this role has not really come up in the presidential primaries or the general campaign, partly because so few Americans want to even acknowledge it is happening.
There is no known link yet between Afghanistan’s deterioration and the attacks in which Mr. Rahami is charged. Even if one emerges, it will have little bearing on the roughly 100,000 Afghans in the United States, many of whom are refugees from this long war and pose no unusual threat; attacks by Afghans appear no more common than those from any other group. If anything, the significance is for the thousands of innocent Afghans still fleeing the country, often on dangerous, desperate journeys to Europe.
But even the search for links between Mr. Rahami and his birth country has reminded Americans of their unacknowledged 51st state, where Washington has ruled — indirectly, and to little positive effect — for longer than most hereditary monarchs.