WASHINGTON (AP) — A decade of war passed quietly at the White House yesterday.
President Barack Obama held no public events Friday to mark a moment the nation never really expected: 10 years of war in Afghanistan. Out of sight and off the minds of millions of Americans, the war is the most prolonged conflict this country has been engaged in since Vietnam. Obama has gone so far as to declare it “the longest war in American history.”
The lack of attention to the 10-year milestone is driven in part by White House thinking that Obama has already helped lead a national reflection on a decade of costly sacrifice and battle. He did that on the recent anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, the day when many people feel the war unforgettably began.
Yet Obama’s handling of the new war milestone also underscores his interest in sticking to an economic message without distraction. Jobs, not war, matter most right now.
What’s more, in military terms, analysts say a 10-year anniversary holds little significance compared with other markers. The main one is the end-of-2014 deadline Obama has set for withdrawal of most U.S. forces, along with the question of whether the United States will be able to leave Afghanistan stable enough politically to prevent a perilous collapse.
It was on Oct. 7, 2001, that the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan, seeking to end the rule of the radical Islamic Taliban and its ability to provide haven to the al-Qaida terrorists who launched the unprecedented terrorist assault on Sept. 11.
At the time, President George W. Bush said to the country, “In the months ahead, our patience will be one of our strengths.”
The nation, under Bush and Obama, saw its patience tested much longer than that.
The American role in the war is now on pace to last at least 13 years.
Put together, more than 2 million troops have been sent to Afghanistan and the war in Iraq, which began in 2003, including hundreds of thousands of troops who have served more than one tour. Nearly 4,500 U.S. troops have died in Iraq and about 1,700 in Afghanistan. Tens of thousands more have been wounded.
Obama moved to end the war in Iraq but initially expanded the one in Afghanistan, trying to regain control of the conflict he saw as central to American security.
His focus was clear in June when he announced that, as promised, troops would begin withdrawing in July and that 33,000 troops will be home by next summer. It was time to focus on home, he said.
Still, almost 70,000 troops will remain in a volatile country after that as the United States continues its withdrawal and its shift of security control to Afghan forces through 2014.
“The tone of the whole speech was, ‘This war is effectively over and we’re gradually shutting it down,’” said Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “Since that is what the White House wants to signal to the country, it doesn’t surprise me that the White House isn’t spending a lot of attention on the 10th anniversary.”
In Afghanistan, the anniversary spurred peaceful demonstrations, with hundreds of people marching through the streets of Kabul Thursday demanding the withdrawal of international military forces.
Obama is in an accelerating re-election fight in which Republicans have taken aim at his Afghanistan policy, but foreign policy is vastly overshadowed by economic concerns.
A recent CBS News poll found that nearly 6 in 10 Americans say the United States should not be involved in Afghanistan, a sharp turnaround from as recently as two years ago, when a majority supported the U.S. mission there. Almost 7 in 10 people say the war has gone on longer than they expected.
In terms of the military, 1 in 3 U.S. veterans of the post-9/11 military believes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not worth fighting, according to a Pew Research Center poll released Wednesday.
Obama has spoken on a series of occasions lately about the sacrifice and success of the military in the 9/11 generation, the families who support them and the goals ahead.
“As our mission transitions from combat to support, Afghans will take responsibility for their own security, and the longest war in American history will come to a responsible end,” Obama said at an American Legion conference in August. “For our troops and military families who’ve sacrificed so much, this means relief from an unrelenting decade of operations.”
Obama may seek another occasion to thank troops in the coming days, and the White House would not rule out a written statement from him Friday about the war anniversary. The president spoke about American resilience on Sept. 11 after he visited memorials at all three sites where hijacked airliners crashed, in New York City, at the Pentagon and near Shanksville, Pa.
“We, in many respects, mark the beginning of war coming to our shores as 9/11, and everything has flowed from that,” Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said.
Political and governance instability continue to cast doubt over Afghanistan’s progress even as military gains have taken hold. Afghan intelligence officials said Wednesday that they had broken up a plot to assassinate President Hamid Karzai. The 10-year mark of the war raises questions about what it will take for the United States to leave on successful terms.
“If we want to leave behind, when we withdraw, something that doesn’t collapse shortly after we go, then Afghanistan is going to have to be different politically than it is now,” said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“We’ve done very well on the military side in the last couple years,” he said. “We have not nearly so well on the political side. And we’re running out of time.”