The Korean War, a conflict half-a-world away that ended in a stalemate after three years, is called “The Forgotten War.” Now forgetfulness is enveloping another U.S. commitment of blood and treasure – the war in Afghanistan. As America’s longest war grinds on, Americans have moved on.
But Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr. refuses to look away from the war or its cost. The wall outside his Capitol Hill office holds photos of U.S. military personnel from Eastern North Carolina who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are currently 566. Two more will soon be added – two 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers stationed at Fort Bragg. They were killed in Afghanistan last week after a bomb hit their convoy during a security patrol.
The North Carolina Republican wants to end U.S. losses there. In a July 18 letter, he appealed to President Donald Trump to follow through on his campaign comments that the war is a wasteful and losing effort. The president is expected to announce soon whether the U.S. will bolster its Afghan commitment or continue to wind it down.
Jones has called on House Speaker Paul Ryan to bring the long-running conflict up for debate in the House. In a June 27 letter to Ryan, Jones wrote: “Members of both parties are so frustrated by the 16 years we spent in Afghanistan. Without further intervention by Congress, the loss of life and the waste of tax dollars in that country will continue.” He concluded: “On behalf of all Americans who have died in Afghanistan, and the continued waste, fraud and abuse of money that persists, I respectfully ask – how much longer will Congress do nothing?”
In March, Jones sponsored a bill, “To prohibit the availability of funds for activities in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.” It has 13 co-sponsors from both parties.
Jones, 74 of Farmville, has served in Congress since 1995. One of his deepest regrets is having voted for the invasion of Iraq. That regret fuels his commitment to remembering and consoling. He has sent thousands of letters to the family members of all U.S. military service members who have died in the post-9/11 wars.
Army Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, says the U.S. is keeping more than 8,400 service members in the embattled nation because it has to have “a presence there.” Jones think standing guard amid chaos is a fool’s mission. In an interview last week, he said, “We cannot police the whole world and especially Afghanistan.”
As of last week, 1,833 U.S. service members have been killed in action in Afghanistan and 20,048 wounded. The U.S. has spent more than $800 billion. Yet most of the country is controlled by enemy forces, millions of dollars are regularly lost to corruption and the Afghan army remains unprepared to stand on its own. (Some Afghan soldiers and policemen, either Taliban infiltrators or just individuals resentful of the U.S. presence, have turned their guns on their trainers. Since 2001, according to Jones’ bill, 151 coalition personnel have been killed and another 189 wounded in so-called “blue on green” attacks.)
Jones’ Eastern North Carolina district includes three Marine bases, Cherry Point, New River and Camp Lejeune, and his constituents include 80,000 retired military personnel, but he said he encounters little opposition to his call to get out of Afghanistan. That includes, he said, Marines who have completed multiple tours there. He said, “You ask them is it changing and they say, ‘No, nothing is changing.’ ”
“It’s almost like we are asking our military to do an impossible thing,” he said.
The Afghanistan war is not only at a stalemate, it’s making matters worse. The object was to stabilize Afghanistan so it would not become a hotbed for terrorism. The U.S. involvement has only made it more of one.
Trump’s appointment of Gen. John F. Kelly as his chief of staff may help break the impasse over Afghanistan policy. One of Kelly’s Marine sons, 1st Lieutenant Robert Kelly, died in Afghanistan in 2010. Jones, who counts Kelly as a friend, said he sent the general a note asking that he “get the White House moving again” on Afghanistan.
Jones thinks Americans’ lack of attention to the war reflects the nation’s volunteer military. Many Americans have no personal stake in what happens there.
With his letters, his wall of memorial photos and his bill, Jones is dedicated to helping distracted Americans remember that this longest war is taking a growing toll and it’s time – it’s well past time – to bring the troops home.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, firstname.lastname@example.org