Forgetting the Forever War

By MacKenZie Rumage

Air Force Airman Holding Refugee Child in Dar Ul Aman, Kabul by Cecilio M. Ricardo Jr., April 8, 2007 via Flickr

On Saturday, March 1, the United States and the Taliban signed a peace deal after a week-long semi-cease fire and months of negotiations. The peace deal comes after President Donald Trump tweeted that he had called off secret negotiations in September between the United States, the Taliban and President Ghani of Afghanistan. Trump wrote that the reason was because the Taliban admitted to killing an American service member and eleven other people. The cancellation caused widespread controversy for multiple reasons, from Trump’s reasoning to what the actual deal would have resulted in. The peace deals look similar, with a full withdrawal of American troops within fourteen months — a withdrawal that is dependent on a guarantee from the Taliban that they will start negotiations with the Afghan government and no terrorist action against the United States will be taken on Afghan soil. However, not everyone is excited about the peace deal.

Even though it is a new chapter in the long, painful saga that has been the American war in Afghanistan, many are sceptical that it will be effective — or even if it will last. In the past couple of days, I have asked some students around the University of St Andrews campus about what they think of the recent developments.

F., a third-year American study abroad student, said a step towards peace was good, but she wasn’t taking the news of the deal at face value. Part of why she was reticent to believe that the deal would work is because of how long the war has been. Americans born after 9/11 will soon be able to enlist in the military, even though they have never known a world in which America hasn’t been at war in Afghanistan. When I asked, F. and another American study abroad student, P., what they thought when they heard the word ‘Afghanistan’ they said they thought of civilian casualties and war. Yet the war isn’t on most people’s minds anymore.

How did the ‘Forever War’ become so forgettable?

It is partly because of how long the conflict has been. Both F. and P. said that other things have felt more important and the war in Afghanistan has become less important in their minds the longer it has gone on. It’s hard to constantly think about a conflict when it does not directly affect you on a daily basis and there have not seemed to be any drastic changes over the past two decades.

Our relationship with the media renders the war even less relevant. Both F. and P. said they check the news semi-regularly, and check news on the war in Afghanistan even less. Neither of them study anything related to International Relations or the Middle East, and neither of them have a loved one serving in the military. In fact, very few Americans have served in Afghanistan compared to the number of service members who fought in previous American wars.

In order to get a better idea of student news consumption, I created a small poll at a local college where my parents teach in the United States. Most students polled at Ringling College in Florida said that on a scale of one to ten of checking the news (ten being very frequently), they were at a four, and at a one of checking news on the war in Afghanistan. It’s clear, then, that many college students do not check the news very much and when they do, they don’t look at war coverage. The war in Afghanistan and the larger War on Terror don’t make major headlines very much anymore. Time heals all wounds — or maybe it just causes indifference.

The question then is how to make it more relevant for Americans on a day-to-day basis. P. says the reason he does not follow the news on Afghanistan is that he wonders, ‘what changed? What’s interesting that happened there that is new that I haven’t learned about already?’ Those are important questions: in a world with a news cycle that shifts every day and a host of other issues to be concerned about, what has happened related to Afghanistan that I should know about? He wants the media to highlight what has happened in Afghanistan recently and why it is prevalent right now.

One reason why it is prevalent right now is because of the upcoming presidential election. It is worth asking how important the war is to voters when choosing a candidate. F. said it’s very important to her, because ‘it’s just something that’s ongoing, and [an end is] something that you always hope can be reached.’

The other reason why the war is still prevalent is why it has always been prevalent: because civilians have suffered since we invaded in 2001. Eighteen years is a long time to be at war, and a long time for a people to live in a war zone. According to Brown University’s Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs, about 43,000 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001 and over 300,000 civilians have died ‘violent deaths’ as direct results of the War on Terror. In 2018, Reuters reported that over one thousand children were killed from January to June of that year. When I gave these numbers to P., his jaw dropped, as had mine. None of us knew the true scale of the problem.

And yet, these numbers are just that — numbers. The war in Afghanistan has been reduced to them: the number of casualties, the number of bombs dropped, the amount spent by the American military. As powerful as those numbers can be, they can only tell us so much about actual experiences of the war and the lives of Afghan civilians. In a twenty-four-hour news cycle like America’s, where are the stories about the civilians who have endured generations of occupation and war, from the British to the Soviets to the Americans?

When I asked F. and P. what they wanted to see from media coverage of Afghanistan, they said more coverage in general, but specifically more focus on the civilians.

In a 2019 piece for The New Yorker, Luke Mogelson wrote about specifically about the many civilians who faced the consequences of American military decision-making on a daily basis. He told the story of a man who tried to convince his brother to flee violence between ISIS and the Taliban with him. His brother refused, and his execution was the first of ten shown later in an ISIS video. Mogelson writes that if a peace plan does not work and current trends continue, ‘within a decade, hundreds of thousands more Afghans could die.’ In a war that the American public struggles to remember and the government struggles to end, the Afghan civilians are truly the ones who are forgotten.

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