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Are Americans Ignoring The Afghan War?

An anti-war protester stands alongside a downtown street at rush hour on Wednesday in Denver. About three dozen demonstrators gathered outside the state capitol building to protest the war, a day after President Obama announced plans to send an additional 30,000 troops to fight in Afghanistan.
John Moore
Getty Images
An anti-war protester stands alongside a downtown street at rush hour on Wednesday in Denver. About three dozen demonstrators gathered outside the state capitol building to protest the war, a day after President Obama announced plans to send an additional 30,000 troops to fight in Afghanistan.

From the outset for many Americans, the war in Afghanistan was the "just" conflict, undertaken to hunt down the masterminds of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and without the divisive politics and questionable rationale of the subsequent invasion of Iraq.

But as the war in Afghanistan ground on year after year, it became obscured by the larger and deadlier conflict in Iraq and became invisible to many Americans more concerned with the battered U.S. economy, the cost of health care and other matters. With the notable exception of families of the all-volunteer military, the Afghan war seemed to be on America's mental back burner.

After all, though Osama Bin Laden remained at large, there had been early successes against the Taliban and a historic Afghan presidential election in 2004, when U.S. fatalities after more than three years in Afghanistan were just over 160.

"We didn't feel the terrorist threat," says historian Andrew Yallow. "And in so many ways, it seemed so distant."

But Afghanistan may no longer be the forgotten war.

Attention Will Be Paid

More than 40 million Americans turned on their televisions this week to watch President Obama lay out his plan to send 30,000 more U.S. troops into the increasingly violent and unpredictable Afghanistan conflict. Of the seven prime-time speeches Obama has given as president, it was his third-largest audience, according to Nielsen, the media audience measurement company.

And polls show that a steady majority of Americans over the past several months — about 60 percent — say that they have been closely following the debate over whether to send more troops to Afghanistan.

While those numbers are bound to go up as Congress and the country debate Obama's war strategy, polls in recent years have consistently shown that Americans are more concerned about the domestic economy than foreign wars. A Gallup poll in October found that 41 percent of Americans believed Obama's top priority should be the economy, while just 18 percent said it should be the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A survey released Thursday by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press suggests that a historic isolationist mood has gripped the country. That, coupled with broad skepticism about Obama's handling of Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, could complicate his efforts to sell an expanded war and perhaps other international initiatives as well.

Sentiments of isolation and unilateralism have reached four-decade highs, the Pew survey found, with 49 percent of Americans polled saying that the U.S. should "mind its own business internationally."

And 44 percent said that the U.S. should go its "own way" in international matters, without worry about whether other countries agree.

"Isolationism can be a loaded word," says Carroll Doherty of the Pew Research Center. "But I don't see how you can read it any other way."

Though the isolation sentiments are the highest they have been in 40 years, they resemble the national mood in the post-Vietnam era, Doherty says, and after the Cold War when the country was gripped by recession.

"We've seen periods like this before, with the public turning more inward," Doherty says. "What's different now is that you have two ongoing conflicts, and arguably the worst economy" in decades.

Affecting The War Debate

The isolationism sentiment is driven by Americans' sense of being overloaded by problems at home and abroad, Doherty says, and it is already influencing debate on the war.

Questions about whether the Afghanistan troop surge should be undertaken at all, how to pay for it and how it will affect the nation's burgeoning debt are driven in part by the economic burdens and fears that Americans are already carrying.

Obama's task is further complicated by dissatisfaction registered over his handling so far of the war in Afghanistan.

The Pew survey found that Americans expressed deep skepticism about whether a democracy can be sustained in Afghanistan.

"We've come as a people to realize that we, as a country, can't always solve problems in other countries and other parts of the world," says Yarrow, director of Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research organization. "I think there's a lot of skepticism about what the point is of the Afghanistan war."

Difficult To Assess?

For many Americans, Afghanistan has been a complex and murky undertaking. In polls earlier this year, Americans said the Afghanistan war was difficult to follow and people said they felt they didn't have the background to understand it.

Doherty says that to the American public it seemed like Afghanistan was "the same news all the time."

Unlike historic wars, where battles were fought and lost or won, the counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan has no discernible front line.

"It's not like there are major battles reported, or major offensives," Yarrow says. "There aren't big stories people can focus on — not like the Tet Offensive" during the Vietnam War.

But with the president's pledge to commit more U.S. troops to the effort — bringing the total American force in Afghanistan to 100,000 — more Americans appear poised to take a harder look at the war, its aims and its costs.

"It's a difficult time for the president," Doherty says, "because the public is understandably reacting to the economy pulling inward, at a time when he is expanding the nation's international role."

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Liz Halloran
Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.
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