The Afghan conflict generates barely a whisper on the U.S. presidential campaign trail. Its not a hot topic at the office water cooler or in the halls of Congress — even though more than 80,000 American troops are still fighting here and dying at a rate of one a day.
Americans show more interest in the economy and taxes than the latest suicide bombings in a different, distant land. Theyre more tuned in to the political ad war playing out on television than the deadly fight still raging against the Taliban. Earlier this month, protesters at the Iowa State Fair chanted “Stop the war!” They were referring to one purportedly being waged against the middle class.
By the time voters go to the polls Nov. 6 to choose between Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, the war will be in its 12th year. For most Americans, thats long enough.
Public opinion remains largely negative toward the war, with 66 percent opposed to it and just 27 percent in favor in a May AP-GfK poll. More recently, a Quinnipiac University poll found that 60 percent of registered voters felt the U.S. should no longer be involved in Afghanistan. Just 31 percent said the U.S. is doing the right thing by fighting there now.
Not since the Korean War of the early 1950s — a much shorter but more intense fight — has an armed conflict involving Americas sons and daughters captured so little public attention.
“Were bored with it,” said Matthew Farwell, who served in the U.S. Army for five years including 16 months in eastern Afghanistan, where he sometimes received letters from grade school students addressed to the brave Marines in Iraq — the wrong war.
“We all laugh about how no one really cares,” he said. “All the support the troops stuff is bumper sticker deep.”
Farwell, 29, who is now studying at the University of Virginia, said the war is rarely a topic of conversation on campus — and he isnt surprised that its not discussed much on the campaign trail.
“No one understands how to extricate ourselves from the mess we have made there,” he said. “So from a purely political point of view, I wouldnt be talking about it if I were Barack Obama or Mitt Romney either.”
Ignoring the Afghan war, though, doesnt make it go away.
More than 1,950 Americans have died in Afghanistan and thousands more have been wounded since President George W. Bush launched attacks on Oct. 7, 2001 to rout al-Qaida after it used Afghanistan to train recruits and plot the Sept. 11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans.
The war drags on even though al-Qaida has been largely driven out of Afghanistan and its charismatic leader Osama bin Laden is dead — slain in a U.S. raid on his Pakistani hideout last year.
Strangely, Afghanistan never seemed to grab the same degree of public and media attention as the war in Iraq, which Obama opposed as a “war of choice.”
Unlike Iraq, victory in Afghanistan seemed to come quickly. Kabul fell within weeks of the U.S. invasion in October 2001. The hardline Taliban regime was toppled with few U.S. casualties.
But the Bush administrations shift toward war with Iraq left the Western powers without enough resources on the ground, so by 2006 the Taliban had regrouped into a serious military threat.
Candidate Obama promised to refocus Americas resources on Afghanistan. But by the time President Obama sent 33,000 more troops to Afghanistan in December 2009, years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan had drained Western resources and sapped resolve to build a viable Afghan state.
And over time, his administration has grown weary of trying to tackle Afghanistans seemingly intractable problems of poverty and corruption. The American people have grown weary too.