Robert Nolan is an editor at the Foreign Policy Association and producer of the Great Decisions in Foreign Policy series on PBS. You can follow him on Twitter @robert_nolan.
It's been said that those who don't remember history are bound to repeat it. But Americans seem to want nothing more than to forget about the war in Afghanistan. Sunday marked the start of the 12th year of U.S. military operations there, making it the longest war ever fought in our nation's history, but you sure wouldn't know it from reading the news media. Indeed, the dearth of coverage related to the war's anniversary was even more conspicuous as NATO defense leaders met in Brussels to chart the end of combat operations there in 2014, and Mitt Romney continues to make foreign policy a new pillar of his campaign.
Despite billions invested and the loss of more than 2,000 brave U.S. soldiers, Americans long ago tuned out events in Afghanistan. As I noted in my post last week, a whopping 67 percent of those polled told the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that the war in Afghanistan was "not worth it" and seven out of 10 said the war has not made the United States any more safe from terrorism. Nearly two thirds of Americans supported the war effort in 2002. What a difference a decade makes.
On the campaign trail, President Barack Obama rarely mentions Afghanistan outside of the context of drawing down and bringing home American troops. His rival Mitt Romney learned early in his campaign that discussing Afghanistan—even in the context of the withdrawal as a politically-driven decision by President Obama—was a lightning rod for a war-weary American public, though he's attempted to reassert this case as of late.
As Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group has stated simply, "The American appetite for global intervention is going to decrease. There aren't many Americans who want to keep going in Afghanistan after 2014." (The exception might be Lara Logan of 60 Minutes, who gave an impassioned speech in support of intervention to the Better Government Association in Chicago last week.)
The complicated nature of this long, drawn out conflict has contributed greatly to the erosion of public support over the years, which even policymakers have been at ends to understand. For the past three months, I've interviewed scores of top NATO and U.S. officials, as well as think tank experts, about national security issues and intervention for the upcoming season of Great Decisions in Foreign Policy on PBS. Many of them addressed the situation in Afghanistan.
"One of the reasons we're in trouble in Afghanistan is because we went well beyond our mission. We accomplished the mission then we took our eye off the ball and intervened, invaded Iraq, and occupied Iraq," former Sen. Chuck Hagel, now chairman of the Atlantic Council, told me at the NATO summit in Chicago last May. "And now, 12 years later, we're not sure what our mission is. Is our mission to eliminate the Taliban? That never was our mission. Is it nation building? Is it sending children to school? Is it building sewer systems? Is it going after al Qaeda?"
While the answer to the former senator's question from American and NATO leaders might once have been "all of the above," today it's much more narrow in scope.
"I think we have succeeded in what we laid out as the goal right from the outset," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a recent interview from NATO headquarters in Brussels. "The reason why we are in Afghanistan is that we want to prevent a country from once again becoming a safe haven for terrorist who could use that safe haven as a launching spot for terrorist attacks against United States or Europe. And since the international operations in Afghanistan started, we have clearly seen that Afghanistan is not a safe haven for terrorists."
So what are the lessons learned for the United States and its allies in Afghanistan? While it would be tough to examines them all comprehensively in a blog post, many of the experts I interviewed offered some insights.
"Initially the U.S. went about pursuing Al Qaeda and Afghanistan in the right way, which was committing small numbers of special forces and CIA operatives working with the locals to overthrow the Taliban in pursue of al Qaeda," says terrorism analyst Will McCants.
In many respects, that is the direction war fighting efforts have taken, particularly in neighboring Pakistan, where anti-American terrorist elements remain. According to the Foreign Policy Association's National Opinion Ballot Report due out next week, 74 percent of engaged Americans said the United States should increase its efforts fighting insurgents in Pakistan. There, the controversial use of armed drones have introduced an effective new weapon for achieving U.S. goals there.
"Before the Afghanistan invasion the U.S. had 2 drones—one was armed one was not," according to Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations. "Today we have 7,500 drones and 400-500 of them can be armed. So we have more capability."
Retired Gen. Richard Meyers, who was head of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, says cultural issues also challenged the U.S. and its allies. "I think we've learned a lot about how culture plays a role in what we do post-conflict, after major combat," he said. "As well as we thought we'd studied the culture—and I'm not just talking about the DoD [Department of Defense], the U.S. government, other governments, NATO for that matter—in Afghanistan our understanding was pretty naïve at first."
Other lessons learned, according to NATO's Secretary-General and others, is the importance of getting training missions started early. "In future operations we should establish training missions at much early stage than we did in Afghanistan with the aim to hand over responsibility for security to local security forces," he said. "Politically, it's much better to give the defense of a specific country to a local face than to deploy foreign troops for a very long time. And economically, it's also is less expensive to train and educate local security forces to conduct combat operations than to deploy foreign troops. Training activities are the main lessons learned from Afghanistan."
Indeed, so-called "green on blue" attacks carried out against NATO forces by the very troops they are training have dominated headlines in recent months, claiming the lives of 53 allied soldiers this year. Both the Red Cross and the respected International Crisis group have warned that Afghanistan risks "sliding into collapse." And a New York Times piece last week said that the United States and its NATO allies have all but given up on reaching some kind of peace deal with the Taliban that might leave the country in a position to sort itself out after 2014.
It will take much more than that for Americans to reengage with Afghanistan, according to Bremer. "If Afghanistan falls apart, falls apart worse, after the U.S. leaves in 2014, that's a problem for the U.S., more terrorism," he said. "But it's a much bigger problem for Afghanistan, for Pakistan, and for China, and India. What we are looking at is an environment where the world's policeman, for many decades, getting all of our allies with us, is suddenly just not willing to be the traffic cop on every beat."
As fighting in Syria rages on and interventionists call for a U.S. response to the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, perhaps Afghanistan is a moment in history we wish to remember.