Afghanistan, the war the people no longer understand

Staff WritersJune 23, 2011 

President Barack Obama cited the cost of the war in Afghanistan as one reason he will withdraw more than 30,000 troops from the country by the end of 2012. Few states know as well as North Carolina what that conflict has cost in lives and in quality of life for the families of service members who have been sent to Afghanistan again and again.

At least 345 service members based in North Carolina have been killed in more than nine years of fighting in Afghanistan, according to the Department of Defense. In this state, in the home of two of the nation's largest military bases, enthusiasm for the effort seems to have dropped as the casualty count has continued to rise.

Some may view the plan to withdraw about a third of the forces now in Afghanistan as a form of surrender and an invitation to terrorists who found sanctuary in the country in the 1990s to return.

Others point to the killing of Osama bin Laden and the decimation of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan as indications that U.S. forces have done what they were sent to do, and maybe all they can do.

"I think there is a real fatigue" with the war, said Todd Culpepper, executive director of the International Affairs Council, a nonpartisan group based in Raleigh that hosts speaking events and other programs to encourage understanding of global affairs.

That fatigue, Culpepper said, is reflected in increasing pressure by Democratic and Republican politicians to draw down forces in Afghanistan, and by the frustrations of families whose soldiers and Marines are on their second and third deployments.

Many people, Culpepper said, have only a vague idea of why U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan.

"The war on terror is a bit ambiguous," he said. "People wonder, who is our enemy exactly? We had that in bin Laden, but now he's dead. I don't know that the average person understands why we're in Afghanistan specifically, versus somewhere else."

Republican U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones, whose district includes Camp Lejeune, the Marine base, has been pressing for an accelerated withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, where the war has cost nearly half a trillion dollars so far, according to the Congressional Research Service.

"I want the president to give a deadline and start bringing the troops out," Jones said. "The longer we're there, in my humble opinion, then the longer we might stay. We have done what we said we would do. Why do keep propping up [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai at $10 billion a month?"

Going forward, he said, the U.S. will be able to use a more targeted approach against Al Qaeda

"Hit 'em in their own back yard," he said, "with drones and bombs and killer squads. That's the way we need to fight terrorism. That comes from talking with military experts."

Hal Brands, an assistant professor at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy, said polling has shown waning American interest in the war, and recent events suggest increasing pressure to get out.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a resolution this week calling for an early end to the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq and a redirection of military spending to domestic priorities. And the Congressional Budget Office said Wednesday that without significant tax increases , spending cuts, or both, the national debt will soon get out of control.

Brands said Afghanistan presents a dilemma for Obama, who came to Camp Lejeune in 2009 to announce the troop surge but then, "never really made the war his own," as his predecessor, George W. Bush, had.

Now, he said, the president faces the risk of pulling out of the country too soon, leaving it to the possibility of renewed instability and internal violence, or staying indefinitely and still not achieving the goal of a stable country whose government can take care of its people and which does not become a haven for terrorists.

"The problem is, there is the potential for failure on all sides," Brands said.

ROTC Lt. Col. Kenneth J. Ratashak, a professor of military science at N.C. State University, agreed that the decision could come down to economics.

"The nation really has to decide about our priorities," Ratashak said. "The big conversation will be about the amount of time we've spent in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the economic situation here."

Ratasha Smith of Raleigh has already decided.

"I am concerned and sympathize with the efforts of the war to help the people of Afghanistan," Smith said. "But I would like to see as much time, effort and attention paid to our situation over here."

martha.quillin@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8989

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