Bad News and the War

For the past several weeks the news from Afghanistan has all been bad.

The latest reports tell of a stolen truck and a flaming driver crashing into a landing area where Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was arriving to give a speech to a group of Marines, who were required to go unarmed to the speech. The unprecedented disarmament might or might not have had anything to do with the killing spree allegedly committed by American soldier a week earlier that left 16 Afghan civilians dead. That deadly incident followed widespread rioting and the killings of six Americans in supposedly safe zones after the accidental burning of some Korans that had been desecrated by prisoners. There are also the more quotidian casualties of war, such as the nameless Afghan soldier who died Tuesday when militants attacked a memorial service for the victims of the earlier rampage.

The tone of the stories is strikingly dispassionate. Most of the reports necessarily come from the traditional news media that still have the resources to send reporters and photographers halfway around the world to a war zone, and they don’t seem to muster the same level of outrage that attended the Abu Ghraib scandal and other setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan during the previous administration. Instead they regard the latest difficulties as regrettable but largely unavoidable, an attitude neatly summed up by a quote from Panetta offered without comment at the end of the New York Times’ story: “War is hell. These kinds of events and incidents are going to take place, they’ve taken place in any war, they’re terrible events, and this is not the first of those events, and is probably will not be the last.”

While the news reports don’t offer the usual defeatist bias, neither do they offer a clear explanation of what the troops are doing there, nor any hope that their goals might be achieved by the time a long-planned withdrawal occurs in 2014. Even the stories filed from the relative safety of Washington, D.C., filled with the official pronouncements of proponents of the war, provide little encouragement.

The Commander in Chief has given only three presidential speeches on the war, and made few other public comments about it, but when announcing the draw-down of forces and promising a complete withdrawal he said his goals were to “refocus on Al-Qaeda, reverse the Taliban’s momentum, and train Afghan Security Forces to defend their own country.” The opportunity to kill large number of Al-Qaeda was never accepted by the press as a rationale for the war in Iraq, and there is no evidence offered by the press that the current effort has proved any more successful. The Taliban’s momentum is such that the United States is hoping to negotiate a new role for it in the Afghan government. It was members of the Afghan Security Forces who killed six Americans in their supposedly secure areas.

All of which makes it seem unlikely that the American military can achieve its stated goals according to its schedule, yet there is little public clamor for speeding up the withdrawal. There remains a bipartisan consensus for the war in Congress, where Republican members are the most outspoken advocates for the effort, and for the past three years or so there has been a conspicuous lack of anti-war demonstrations on the streets, where the only protestors on display are more angry about their student loans or a rich man’s tax rates than some soldier’s fate in Afghanistan. Conservatives don’t want to be seen as weak in their support of the troops, liberals don’t want to be seen as weak in their support of the president, and the rest have apparently grown tired of the 10-year-old war and are eager to ignore it.

Another spate of unhappy headlines could force the war back into the forefront of the political discussion, however, and a new bipartisan consensus could emerge. The conservatives might well conclude that the troops are being used for political rather than sound military purposes, the liberals might demand that Obama prove his peacenik credentials by an early withdrawal, and the rest will want the war to be over regardless of the consequences. Neither the president nor his Republican challengers have anything to gain at the moment by drawing attention to the Afghanistan, but it’s likely they’ll be forced to address the issue soon.

— Bud Norman

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