“[W]e took our eye off the ball when we invaded Iraq. And now it’s done. My job is to withdraw in a responsible way from Iraq and stabilize the situation there. But our real focus has to be on Afghanistan.”
Barack Obama, January 14, 2009
Barack Obama got elected in 2008 partly on the basis of calling into question Republican national security judgments. He was right. The invasion of Iraq was more than just a blunder. It was strategic malpractice of the first order. As 2009 Obama articulated, the most disheartening aspect of the Iraq fiasco was the inability of the Bush Administration to walk and chew bubble gum at the same time, taking its eye off an arguable war of necessity in Afghanistan to obsess over a war of choice in Iraq and turning both into debacles as a result. But in an almost poetic, woeful stroke of political irony, 2014 Obama is committing the same sin he once bemoaned so effectively. He’s taking his eye off the ball in Afghanistan. Like his predecessor, he’s neglecting not only the war, but those doing the fighting on his behalf.
President Obama’s last press conference devoted to discussing the war in Afghanistan was one year ago. At that joint event with Hamid Karzai, he declared that the U.S. had accomplished what it set out to do there. Since then, he has barely discussed the subject at all. And since then, 132 Americans have lost their lives in combat. Since then, the U.S. has spent more than $86B to sustain a war effort that doesn’t consistently make the evening news. Since then, Karzai has released prisoners considered threatening to our security. Given that U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is entirely concerned with containing security threats, this is a worrisome development. It renews questions over whether the Karzai government’s strategy is in any way consistent with our own. Then again, what is our strategy? Recent revelations emerging from former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates’ memoir portray Obama as unconfident in his own strategic deliberations, at odds with Karzai as well as his own commanders, and possessed with the notion that this isn’t even “his war.” Perhaps this explains why Mr. Obama spends so little time visiting upon the subject. But given that he drastically deepened our commitment there and nearly three quarters of U.S. casualties in Afghanistan have come on his watch, he owns this war like it or not.
This is not to say President Obama is anything other than a humane man. Certainly he is aware of the loss of young men and women in his war and certainly he feels that loss. But the nation needs more than concern and empathy. We need leadership. We need strategy. We need him asking tough questions and telling us how to make sense of the answers. We need him meeting with his war council, adjusting his plan, firing those who fall short and promoting those who show promise. We need him talking to us about the meaning of our involvement. This should be a continuing conversation, not a minimalist one evincing the notion of a war on auto-pilot.
Most of all, we need justification for the expenditure of $6.5B per month to sustain our involvement in what even Obama seemingly views as a failed enterprise. As Congress finalizes appropriation of the budget Obama recently signed into law, the parties are squabbling over whether to extend unemployment benefits to Americans struggling to find work. This would cost $6.3B for three months. This measure could be paid for by curtailing the conflict by one month. This seems reasonable given how loathe the President seems to even acknowledge the fact of the war. Congress is also trying to decide whether to repeal a veteran compensation cut which saves enough over ten years to fund one month of Afghanistan operations. In other words, we’re asking those who have done the fighting in Afghanistan to pay for another month of fighting there by giving up their pensions. Again, a more reasonable course would be to end the war and pay what is owed to our veterans. But this kind of folly is not the product of clear thinking; the solutions to a dozen different problems are within reach by ending the war, but the President doesn’t notice them because he has taken his eye off the ball, and in doing so, has allowed Americans at large to do the same.
Most Americans have no idea there is a war. No one is talking to them about it. Sunday talk shows today showcased a scandal about a traffic jam on a bridge, and whether it would impact an election nearly three years from now. 60 Minutes covered the ever-important A-Roid scandal. Network TV is concerned not with America’s war against Al Qaeda, but Peyton Manning’s war next weekend against Tom Brady. A new movie out this weekend chronicles one of the Afghanistan’s most intense battles. The one reporter who tried to bridge from the story of that battle to the larger question of our presence in Afghanistan got clubbed over the head for it. Commentators and veterans are the only ones talking about something that should be in center focus for all Americans. They struggle to make sense of something that seems senseless.
One very small segment of Americans painfully aware of the war is comprised of those doing the fighting and their families. The prevailing sentiment among them, when they allow themselves to feel anything, is a blend of confusion and powerlessness. They realize they’re the only ones left who care about this, and wish they too could let it go. But they can’t. They signed on and owe a duty of performance. Their lives revolve around that duty. I have several friends serving in Afghanistan today and a half dozen more with orders to spend a year or more there beginning later this year. This is profoundly nonsensical given that the war is supposed to be over by the end of the year, but they swallow hard and get about doing their jobs, hoping sanity will prevail at some point. But it is heartbreaking to see the expressions on their faces when I ask them if they believe in what they’re doing. The answers are never equivocal, even if the underlying emotions are all over the map. They do what they do out of a sense of duty to team and to fulfill their oaths of service, but not because they believe in or even understand what they’re supporting. They worry about how history will judge their participation in something even their commanders don’t seem to understand or celebrate. Most dishearteningly, they worry that they and their families are being forgotten not just by fellow citizens, but by the elected politicians and uniformed leaders who are supposed to be guiding them.
As my friends pack their bags for a year in Afghanistan, Washington politicians have started raiding their pension funds, inducing new anxieties about whether their willingness to serve will prove justified. They see more broken promises and betrayals ahead. They also perceive new pressure on the Department of Defense to squeeze personnel accounts, which has put the jobs of honorable, competent, dedicated servants on the line even as they’re asked to do more to sustain a war no one else seems to care about. Some will be sent to a remote outpost, and while there, receive orders to return home so they can be separated from the military as part of the upcoming drawdown. With the stroke of a pen, they will go from being so valuable to the war effort that a year away from family was justifiable . . . to so expendable they aren’t needed at all. How does one make sense of such an absurdity? Without the active and guiding hand of a strong leader to explain it all, they don’t.
The President seems to have consigned himself to being a passive bystander in a war effort starving for his leadership. That, such as it is, would be bad enough. But in signing the budget, he went beyond neglect and into the realm of promise-breaking. Going back on his own word, he broke the faith with veterans who carried out an unguided war, legalizing the raiding of pensions they fought, suffered, bled, and endured untold deprivation to earn. Their spouses couldn’t hold consistent work. Their families were uprooted time after time. They missed events from birthdays and baby steps to ballgames and baptisms. After all this, their leader broke his promise, even as he turned his glance away from their sacrifice and had someone else order them into another year of hell on Earth.
Against this backdrop, suicides among veterans are spiking to an alarming rate. This is a dire signal of the difficulty in reconciling the horrors of war with life in civilized society. This reconciliation becomes more difficult as the nation becomes more aloof to the plight of those doing the fighting . . . and a natural reaction by veterans to such unconcern is to become more isolated, withdrawn, and set apart. Dark days lie ahead unless our national leaders grow to perceive and address this transition from a nation supporting war to one reintegrating its fighting servants. If our own history has anything to say about the matter, we will spend the next several decades grappling to understand and heal the injury inflicted upon our national consciousness through this combination of inattentiveness and brazen usury. That is . . . unless our commander-in-chief, whose power to unify, guide, and heal us is so tremendous . . . gets his eye back on the ball and leads the nation out of the unfolding nightmare taking place halfway around the world.
By Tony Carr
January 12th, 2014