The war we have nearly forgotten

| Forum Editor

As we mark the eighth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan, our country is embarking on a high-stakes debate about whether and how to continue waging this war.

To my knowledge, never before in American history has such an important and long-lasting war received so little public attention. It is true that we have had many substantial distractions—the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, our energy problems, the economic crisis, the health care debate—that all deserve our attention; yet, we should not have let this war fall so deeply out of our public consciousness.

This lack of attention is particularly striking on campus. With no draft to worry about, it is easy for us as college students to forget that Americans our own age are fighting overseas, particularly because many, though not all, of us come from communities where enlisting in the military is rare.

I personally believe that we should increase the number of troops in Afghanistan. I think that our struggle against Islamic fundamentalism is an essential fight to preserve and spread the values we cherish—values like democracy, equality for women and respect for human life—and I think winning the war in Afghanistan is crucial to the success of this struggle. I think we must prevent Afghanistan from relapsing into a haven for Al Qaeda and ensure that insurgents do not destabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan. I do not think we can succeed without an increased troop presence.

Yet what really matters is not my own position but that we engage in a broad public discussion before we proceed. If we do commit more troops to Afghanistan, we will be embroiled in conflict there for many years to come, we will spend a great deal more money in the process, and many more American soldiers will die. This means that our generation of policymakers will have to continue dealing with the war’s consequences.

I think the war in Afghanistan’s importance justifies its costs. I believe, however, that we owe it to ourselves to know what we are taking on. Furthermore, we cannot ask more Americans to risk their lives on our behalf without seriously evaluating the reasons why.

There are many plausible reasons why we have essentially ignored this debate so far. It is unexciting, hard to understand and concerns a country halfway across the world. It does not have the immediacy of midterms or extracurricular pursuits and for those who at least follow national politics, it lacks the drama of the health care debate or an election.

I hardly expect Brookings Quad to erupt into an anti-war protest anytime soon, and I know that our potential to affect the outcome of this debate is limited. Yet our limitations should not excuse our inaction.

We can call our members of Congress or contact the White House with comments. We can educate ourselves through dialogue on campus. We can reward influential national media outlets for covering the issue by watching or reading such coverage, especially online where news outlets can track views per article.

Whatever the actions we take, we must start by paying more attention. Once we do, the best means of influencing the debate will become more self-evident.

Eight years is too long to fight a war and hardly notice.

  • Here is the 2004 and 2006 course description of “Fundamentalisms East and West,” taught in the University College, 02, 04, 06:

    “Fundamentalist Christian. Islamic fundamentalist.
    Jewish fundamentalist. Fundamentalist Zoroastrian.
    Hindu fundamentalist. Fundamentalist Catholicism.
    Fundamentalist feminist. Fundamentalist anthropologist.
    Market fundamentalism. All these usages are attested.
    Why call someone a fundamentalist? Who call themselves
    fundamentalists? Should we all stop using the word?
    This is a course on the historical roots of religious
    fundamentalism, how it has changed over time, and
    contemporary understandings and misunderstandings
    of the term, from conservative Anglo-American
    Protestantism to the “War on Terror.”

    My 2002 course description includes the following:

    “Is there really such a thing as “fundamentalism,”
    or is this a modernist Protestant stereotype of conservative
    Protestants, reified and applied to the other religious
    traditions of the world? Should we all stop using this
    highly charged word, or does it, if carefully defined,
    have heuristic value as a comparative terrm?”

    Please see my Facebook Note, Fundamentalisms East and West: From Conservative Protestants to the War on Terror,”

  • Liz

    “our struggle against Islamic fundamentalism is an essential fight to preserve and spread the values we cherish”
    As powerful as our Armed Forces are, they are a blunt instrument and they cannot fight an ideology. Nor can they spread democracy. Democracy spread at the point of spear (or a ballistic missile) is not democracy, it is tyranny. I agree wholeheartedly that any decision in either Iraq or Afghanistan should require a deep re-assessment of our responsibilities and our abilities (not to mention what we think “winning” will be). I for one would start with re-assessing the American belief that we need to wage a war on broad, intangible concepts and to “spread democracy”. We should not construct this as “our struggle against Fundamentalist Islam.” It is a pointless waste of time and our Armed Forces. We can and should work towards a stable Afghanistan (and Iraq), especially considering how destabilizing out past policies have been. Landmines, intimidation, lack of running water, rampant corruption, poverty, malnutrition, and illiteracy (and so on) are what we ultimately face in Afghanistan. Religion is just the rhetoric for power hungry men (and not just in Islam) use to mobilize a poor, hopeless, uneducated and frustrated people (and not just in Afghanistan). As long as we continue to act like this is a “clash of civilization” or “a struggle against Fundamentalist Islam” we miss the point and throw more fuel on the fire for men who would subvert religion to hide Machiavellian motives.