Skip to main content

How Afghanistan became the ignored war

By Julian E. Zelizer, Special to CNN
Paratroopers in the US Army's 82nd Airborne Division carry a seriously wounded Afghan civilian to Army Medevac helicopter.
Paratroopers in the US Army's 82nd Airborne Division carry a seriously wounded Afghan civilian to Army Medevac helicopter.
  • Julian Zelizer says Afghanistan war has gotten very little public attention in the U.S.
  • He says it has cost the nation greatly and there's no assurance of victory
  • War overshadowed by economic crisis, reluctance by both parties to criticize, he says
  • Absence of a draft also limits U.S. attention to war, Zelizer says

Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security -- From World War II to the War on Terrorism" and a book on former President Carter, to be published next fall by Times Books.

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- If the Korean War, which began 60 years ago this past weekend, was America's forgotten war, Afghanistan has been America's ignored war.

Since President Obama authorized a surge of troops in Afghanistan in December 2009, there has been a notable absence of public debate or interest about this conflict.

Although the media has tracked conditions on the ground and more recently has examined the rapid deterioration of U.S. military strategy, Afghanistan has not elicited the same kind of civic dialogue that surrounded President George W. Bush's war in Iraq and certainly nothing like President Johnson's war in Vietnam.

Indeed, when the controversy over Gen. Stanley McChrystal's comments in Rolling Stone magazine erupted in the past week, one of the most surprising aspects of the story was that, for a brief moment, Americans were actually talking about Afghanistan once again. Our nation is in the middle of a war that has gone on for over nine years, but many people have not been paying attention.

Video: Time to rethink Afghanistan?
Video: Writer defends methods
Video: Ground rules for interview?
Video: Can Petraeus succeed?

Afghanistan cannot be ignored. The war, which started in the aftermath of 9/11, costs the federal government about $6.7 billion a month. That's more than the monthly cost of Iraq.

June 2010 marked one of the deadliest months in this war. Since the war began, more than 1,000 American servicemen and women have died. The government of Afghanistan, our ally, remains mired in corruption and teeters on instability. Gen. David Petraeus' counterinsurgency strategy is apparently not working its magic.

Many experts doubt that the president can abide by the July 2011 timetable that he set to begin withdrawal. The end is not in sight, and it is unclear whether policymakers even know what the end is. According to Newsweek, one expert working with the Pentagon commented, "We could sink in billions more dollars for another 10 to 20 years, and if we're lucky, we'll get Haiti ..."

What accounts for the utter lack of attention to this war?

The first factor has been the fragile state of the economy within the U.S. The severity of economic conditions since the financial crash in the fall of 2008 has naturally led citizens to focus on the health of their pocketbooks and the stability of their mortgage payments rather than on war and peace. The listless recovery that has left high rates of unemployment has meant many families don't have the time or energy to pay attention to events overseas.

The second factor has to do with the political incentives that inhibit liberals and conservatives from making too much of an issue of this war. Many liberal Democrats have been either angry or quietly uneasy with Obama's decision to escalate troop levels in Afghanistan.

Yet they have generally remained silent since the surge began, fearing they could undercut Obama as he moved forward with health care, a high priority for Democrats.

They were also in a bind since they had based much of their criticism of President Bush on the claim that he had diverted resources from the war in Afghanistan, where the terrorists who perpetrated 9/11 had been given shelter by the Taliban, and used them for the war in Iraq, which they said was not essential to the war on terrorism.

At the same time, conservatives have not made much noise either. Although there are many conservatives who support President Obama's strategy, there are also political factors at work. Talking too much about Afghanistan cuts against a central argument that they want to make about this administration: that Democrats are weak on defense.

It is hard to make a hawk look like a dove. By focusing on other national security issues, such as President Obama's efforts to strengthen civil liberties in the war on terrorism, conservatives have found easier targets. Afghanistan, where Obama has continued and accelerated a central component of Bush's war-on- terrorism strategy, does not fit neatly into their narrative.

Finally, there is the persistent effect on wartime politics that results from not having a draft. Without a draft, many Americans simply don't feel or fear the costs of war. They don't feel the urgency of paying close attention to what is going on. Rather, our nation depends on the valiant efforts of our professional army to handle these challenges.

President Nixon, who pushed for the end of the draft in 1973, believed from the start of his term that much of the grass-roots anti-war movement was driven by the fears of middle-class families that their children would be sent into war. Nixon made ending the draft a top priority because he believed it would undercut this sentiment. Anti-war activism, in his mind, had to do primarily with having to go to war rather than the war itself.

In many respects, Nixon's prediction turned out to be true. Even with President Bush's war in Iraq, which strained public opinion and required more ground troops than any war in recent history, the nation did not experience the kinds of grass-roots protests that rocked Lyndon Johnson's administration in the 1960s.

The absence of a draft, combined with the unwillingness of Democrats or Republicans to call on citizens to sacrifice for the war effort through other means (such as higher taxes) produced national apathy even though our men and women are right in the middle of a conflict.

As a result of these factors, Afghanistan has remained off the radar. Perhaps with the McChrystal controversy, the nation will start asking tougher questions about what is going on in this war, what our objectives are and how the strategy is working.

Unfortunately, we will most likely turn our attention back to other issues, such as the feature story in Rolling Stone called "Lady Gaga Tells All." In doing so, we will continue an unhealthy pattern of fighting wars outside of the public mind.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian E. Zelizer.