The US can't afford to forget its wars -- or why it fights them

global headaches afghanistan orig_00000607
global headaches afghanistan orig_00000607


    Afghanistan: The biggest issue for the next US president?


Afghanistan: The biggest issue for the next US president? 00:52

Story highlights

  • Lemmon: US remains a nation at war
  • Close to 10,000 US troops remain in Afghanistan

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the New York Times best-seller, "Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield." The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)This week an American Green Beret lost his life on the battlefield in Afghanistan. Staff Sgt. Adam S. Thomas died while on a "counterterrorism mission targeting ISIS," said Gen. John Nicholson, the senior US commander in the country.

His loss marked the third American combat death of 2016 in Afghanistan, a country where American combat operations officially ended at 2014's close.
    In a country that barely remembers there is a battlefield in Afghanistan, the loss of Thomas pierced the headlines for a brief moment before the war slipped once more into the back of the nation's consciousness.
    But his death and the country's loss are reminders that Americans are still serving in and deploying to Afghanistan. As much as the nation would have liked to think in 2011 that the "tide of war is receding," as President Obama said, US soldiers are fighting and dying on the front lines of a war that continues, even if those in whose name it is being fought have long ago forgotten it.
    For the families of those in uniform, though, there is no forgetting about America's 15-year war in Afghanistan. The battle has morphed from the fight against the Taliban, to the fight against al Qaeda, to the fight against ISIS, a resurgent al Qaeda, and the Taliban, whose leader America recently killed in a drone strike.
    Related video: Taliban confirm leader killed in U.S. airstrike
    Related video: Taliban confirm leader killed in U.S. airstrike


      Related video: Taliban confirm leader killed in U.S. airstrike


    Related video: Taliban confirm leader killed in U.S. airstrike 02:06
    Close to 10,000 US troops remain in the country. Service members are still regularly shipping out to Afghanistan — the 12th all-women Cultural Support Team class is preparing now for its upcoming special operations deployment — and Americans don't look likely to come home for good anytime soon. Yet the number of troops deployed is less important than their mission: If service members are doing work that is vital to America's security and Afghanistan's stability, then let's talk about it. If more or fewer forces are needed to accomplish that mission, let's discuss it.
    But 2016 is the second presidential campaign in a row in which the Afghanistan war barely merited a mention by either the public or its leaders. Americans should and must engage with the fight, because the gap between those who serve and everyone else is large and growing in a country that doesn't have the time, energy or will to think about the reality of what it asks of those who serve.
    This means demanding more than bumper-sticker slogans or a remembrance of the killing of Osama bin Laden when discussing the war in Afghanistan. It means talking about the principles guiding the mission more than occasionally mentioning the tactics. And it means more than pillorying those who say that "facts on the ground" should determine withdrawal dates.

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    This time around, let's have a full-throttled debate about America's role in the world based upon the reality of its commitments. And engage in the wars Americans are fighting — whether they are officially labeled "combat operations" or not — by discussing and debating where America should be and why it matters that America's service members are there, whether that "there" is Afghanistan, Syria or Iraq. No more snack-sized announcements or blustery statements, but a serious and fact-based discussion of why it matters that America stays in Afghanistan and for what reasons.
    For too long Americans have been happy to avoid the fact that the United States remains a nation at war. But if the sacrifices of Staff Sgt. Thomas and the close to 2,300 other Americans lost in Afghanistan are to truly matter to the country — to be personal, as they should be — then the war must move from a distraction to a discussion.
    Right now, as the country debates its future and thinks about its role in the world, is the time to grapple with the goals of American force.
    The country can't afford to forget its wars or why it fights them. It's time Americans pay as much attention to their actual wars as we do to the movies made about them.