War is so normal in the United States of America — being in a constant state of it, somewhere else — that the longest-running foreign conflict in the country’s history is hardly even an afterthought in the race to become the nation’s next commander in chief.
In 17 televised debates and town halls, the Republicans and Democrats running for president have been asked all of two questions about the war in Afghanistan, now in its 15th year. The antiwar movement having died off with the election of President Barack Obama, who dramatically escalated the war before promising to end it, Afghanistan is of little concern outside a small room in Nevada where a U.S. pilot is remotely firing a Predator drone’s Hellfire missiles.
On the Republican side, Ben Carson was asked about Obama’s decision last year to “leave 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan” indefinitely. That was in November 2015, and Carson dodged the question, shifting to a question of his own — on humiliation as counterterrorism — that he posed as an answer. “How do we make them look like losers?” he asked, arguably elevating the discourse on foreign policy in this most humiliating of election campaigns.
No Republican has been asked about Afghanistan since. At nearly half of their debates, the name of the country hasn’t even been mentioned in passing.
POTUS on Afghanistan: "I’ve said we would end this war in 2014. Gov. Romney last week didn’t have a thing to say about the war."
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) September 4, 2012
As for the Democrats, voters might be forgiven for assuming there’s a stark difference between the progressive Bernie Sanders and the centrist Hillary Clinton.
Bernie volunteered at the first debate in October 2015 that he “supported the war in Afghanistan,” but the remark was ambiguous: Did he still support, or was he merely listing all the bombs he has supported dropping in the past, a prerequisite for someone seeking to occupy the White House. It wasn’t until February 2016 that either he or Clinton were asked a direct question about a U.S. occupation that’s halfway through its second decade.
“If President Obama leaves you 10,000 troops,” the moderate inquired, “how long do you think they’re going to be there?”
“Well, you can’t simply withdraw tomorrow,” said Sanders. “Wish we could, and allow, you know, the Taliban or anybody else to reclaim that country.” He then shifted to “destroying” the Islamic State group in Iraq. And that was that.
If Bernie did not actually answer the question, neither did Hillary, who was named secretary of state by the president who has chosen to break his promise to leave Afghanistan in favor of leaving those 10,000 troops instead. “I would have to make an evaluation based on the circumstances at the time I took office,” said Clinton, not really saying anything.
Afghanistan hasn’t come up again, perhaps because two old white people agreeing with each other does not make for great television. For years the war in Afghanistan was “the good one,” launched as it was just a month after the terrorist attacks on Sep. 11, 2001, with liberal Democrats spending the better part of a decade contrasting its justness with the “distraction” of invading and destroying Iraq.
Do Afghan Lives Matter?
Afghanistan’s absence from U.S. politics can also, perhaps, be attributed to the fact that those who are dying there today are not the U.S. military’s brave men and women, but Afghan civilians, as anonymous as they are innocent.
“For the most part I would blame racism in the media,” said Mohammed Harun Arsalai, a 34-year-old Afghan living in Kabul, in an interview with teleSUR. An independent journalist, Arsalai has seen firsthand that, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, Afghan lives don’t matter.
“I can point back to at least two examples in recent memory where a major, mainstream media outlet contacted me about footage and information on attacks taking place in Kabul against ‘Western targets,’” he said. One was a suicide car bomb attack on a French restaurant and the other was an attack on the Italian Embassy. “In both instances,” he said, “these outlets canceled their requests with me because no Westerners were injured. Afghan lives just aren’t worth as much to these people.”
On Feb. 27, the same day Clinton and Sanders were campaigning for votes in South Carolina, at least 26 people were killed and 50 wounded in suicide bombings across Afghanistan. No Westerners died, however, and so another day went by on the campaign trail where a war being waged 11,000 kilometers away went unmentioned.
If he had a chance to meet with any of the presidential contenders, Arsalai knows what he would say: “That the U.S. has no policy in Afghanistan.” The threat of a Taliban takeover is oft-cited as a reason to stay, but the U.S. “has said on multiple occasions now that they are not at war with the Taliban. What does that mean? What are they doing here then?”
“Afghans are killing Afghans,” said Arsalai, “while the U.S. is mainly confined to its bases using drones and airstrikes, basically acting as a manager of the violence.”
FACT: Romney and Ryan don't have a plan for our troops in Afghanistan. The President has a clear plan to end the war in 2014. #DetailsMatter
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) October 12, 2012
War Without an End
Matthew Hoh was one of the U.S. State Department’s senior officers in Afghanistan. He resigned in September 2009, protesting a war he accused the Obama administration of fighting without a clear idea as to “why and to what end.”
“Cut the crap,” Hoh would tell those — everyone running for president — who believe the U.S. presence is preventing an extremist takeover. “Our presence in Afghanistan, in particular our escalation of the war, has only made the Taliban stronger,” he told teleSUR.
In the months before Hoh resigned from the State Department, President Obama fulfilled a campaign promise and ordered a massive surge of troops in Afghanistan, increasing the size of the U.S. occupying force from 32,800 men and women at the time he took office in January 2009 to more than 100,000 by 2011, not counting private contractors. It was another campaign promise, made four years later, that he decided to break: the one about getting out.
The product of escalation has not been peace, but a surge in death for all sides, though in war as in capitalism, burdens are not distributed equally. Of the nearly 2,400 U.S. troops who have died in Afghanistan, more than 1,750 have died since Obama took office. But as in any war, the brunt of the violence has been felt by those on whose behalf it is ostensibly being fought: In 2015 alone, at least 3,545 civilians were violently killed, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, while more than 7,400 were injured, making it the worst year on record for the Afghan people.
Overall, the war has killed around 100,000 people in Afghanistan, more than a quarter of them civilians, according to a study by researchers at Brown University. And the 30 million Afghans still living now face another threat: the Islamic State group, an extremist organization for those who deem the ultra-reactionary Taliban too moderate. “(M)ore than two-thirds (67.4 percent) of Afghans report that they always, often, or sometimes fear for their personal safety,” found a survey of nearly 10,000 people released in November 2015 by The Asia Foundation. “This is the highest rate since 2006.”
No Courage, No Peace
“By every standard of measurement,” Hoh said, “our military, economic and diplomatic campaigns under the Obama administration have worsened conditions for the average Afghan, increased popular support for the Taliban, and created an increasing factionalism and weakness in Afghan society that has allowed for a group like the Islamic State to find a welcoming base of support and enthusiastic adherents.”
After all, thanks to corrupt local warlords sometimes called “governors” and backed by the power and glory of the almighty U.S. military, many Afghans have come to learn that Taliban, ISIS or al-Qaida or not, getting in the way of corruption, or just living on land the corrupt desire, can be a ticket to a torture chamber at Bagram or an extended stay in an early grave. And if they can’t join the corrupted, some decide they might as well join the resistance, or what passes for it, whether they share its views on women and television or not.
But people prefer the comfort of simplicity and, so long as the dead is someone else’s kid, there’s no real price to pay for ignorance, or really anything to gain politically from denouncing an act that no one is angry about.
“The vast majority of Americans are unaffected by the war. It has no immediate costs for them and they bear no sacrifice,” said Hoh. Stirring that sorely lacking concern is, alas, asking for more than most media outlets are willing or capable.
“For the standard three-minute television story or 500-word print story,” Hoh argued, “upsetting the moral narrative of the ‘good war’ is too difficult to achieve, and it is something that would take moral courage to do, anyhow.” In the campaign press as with politicians on the campaign trail, there just isn’t a whole lot of that sort of thing, even in the best of times — and this, the age of austerity and Donald Drumpf, cannot be confused with that.
So, left unchallenged, even the populists will continue to shrug along with the status quo, not even bothering with the historic tradition of making anti-war promises to break, while Afghans will continue dying in a war that few ever bothered to understand.
This article was originally published on the teleSUR website.