American Indifference Allowed the War in Afghanistan to Drag On
With troops finally scheduled for withdrawal by September after two decades of conflict, America’s intervention in Afghanistan seems destined to go down in history as an accidental forever war. Only peripherally part of the country’s policy debates, and never really occupying the attention of members of the public other than the few who had relatives involved in the fighting, U.S. intervention almost seems to have stumbled on because people neglected to bring it to an end. Even as polls indicate broad assent, ending years of bloody struggle comes with minimal fanfare.
“A majority of Americans (58%) approve of the decision to withdraw all troops,” according to recent Economist/YouGov polling. With majority support among military families and military personnel for a withdrawal negotiated by the Trump administration and enacted (with a few months’ delay) by the Biden administration, the end of America’s intervention in Afghanistan is one of the few issues that seems capable of pulling Americans together these days. If that’s the case, though, why did it take so long?
The problem is that Americans seem to desire an end to the conflict only when they give the matter any thought—and that’s not very often at all.
“More than half of Americans (57%) do not follow any news and information about the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan,” an AP/NORC poll found in October 2020. The age group least likely to pay any attention to the lingering conflict in the region was made up of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29—precisely those most likely to fill the ranks of troops sent to the region.
That inattention to the issue has consequences. Pollsters found that knowledge of American casualties reduced support for increasing the troop presence and raised support for ending U.S. intervention in Afghanistan—but Americans generally lack that awareness. Unsurprisingly, it’s relatively easy to be indifferent to an ongoing war if you’re oblivious to its costs in dead and wounded among your own military personnel and the people who live in and around the battlefields.
That indifference helps to explain why, despite current acclaim for the end (we hope) of the U.S. role in Afghanistan, public opposition to the war only briefly matched support for it—in 2014, during the troop withdrawal of the Obama years. After that, according to Gallup, belief that “it was a mistake sending troops to fight in Afghanistan” stalled at about 43 percent, ten points behind support for the conflict.
Meanwhile, politicians quietly replaced many of the troops pulled out in 2014 with thousands of private contractors who shouldered much of the war effort out of public view. As of Novem
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