For the Forgotten War, substitute the Invisible War
Bombarded as Americans continue to be with story after story about leaked emails, sexual assault allegations, and general bipartisan campaign vitriol, it may have escaped some folks' notice that earlier this week, two more U.S. soldiers died in Afghanistan.
You remember Afghanistan. It's that historically violent tribal nation 7,500 miles away that we invaded 15 years ago with the declared aim of punishing its Taliban rulers for refusing to surrender Osama bin Laden and his senior subordinates after the attacks of 9-11-01.
To date, that notionally limited commitment has cost us nearly 2,400 military fatalities, another 20,000 wounded, many of them permanently disabled, and roughly $750 billion. It might be worth asking, in this political season, what those costs have purchased.
Few of us would like the answer. On Tuesday, The Hill on-line published a new report by the administration's Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR, acknowledging that "past gains in Afghanistan 'are eroding' despite $115 billion in American support since 2002."
"Despite $68.7 billion from the U.S. in building and sustaining Afghan security forces since 2002," SIGAR notes, "the amount of territory controlled by the Afghan government has decreased from 65.6 percent of the country's districts as of May 28, 2015, to 63.4 percent as of Aug. 28, 2016."
In fact, even those depressing numbers may be suspect. A more recent independent study by The Long War Journal claims that SIGAR has significantly underestimated the number of Afghan districts "controlled or influenced" by the Taliban.
According to The Long War Journal, during the past year alone, the number of Taliban-controlled and/or-influenced districts has risen from 70 to 97, more than twice the number reported by SIGAR.
To any American 65 or older, these competing estimates of government v. insurgent control should sound depressingly familiar. In Vietnam by early 1963, similarly divergent claims of progress in suppressing the Viet Cong insurgency had become so contentious that President Kennedy was moved to ask disputing observers returning from an inspection tour, "You two did visit the same country, didn't you?"
In Afghanistan, the result has been a peculiar downward redefinition of success. Admitting like his predecessor that the war effectively is stalemated, the current U.S. commander in Afghanistan nevertheless describes government control of nearly 70 percent of Afghanistan's population as a "positive" situation.
Since, as an Associated Press article earlier this week pointed out, that description merely means that a third of the population still isn't under government control despite 15 years of expensive effort, calling the situation in Afghanistan "positive" should strain our credulity at least as much as similar reports from Vietnam strained JFK's.
Meanwhile, the casualties continue to mount, and not just among our own troops. Last year, losses among Afghan security forces, soldiers and police, soared some 28 percent above 2014's to more than 15,000 killed and injured, and the numbers are expected to be even larger this year.
Ditto for civilian casualties. On Thursday, the Washington Post reported that more than 2,500 Afghan civilians have been killed this year alone, with more than 600 "attributable to 'pro-government' forcesÖup by 42 percent from last year."
"Many of them," the article notes, "were caused by errant airstrikes," America's principal contribution to lethal operations in Afghanistan, as it is to other current hostilities from Iraq to Libya.
One result has been a growing humanitarian catastrophe. According to the U.N., more than a million Afghans already had been uprooted from their homes last year. This year, more than 60,000 have been displaced in Helmand province alone.
All told, according to the Post, at least a million civilians are fleeing government and insurgent violence either within the country itself or across its borders, violence that the U.S. and our NATO partners continue to underwrite.
Given these horrific numbers and the clear likelihood that next year will only see matters worsen, one would expect the war in Afghanistan to be among the issues most salient to next week's election.
One would be wrong. Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump and their surrogates have been virtually mute concerning Afghanistan. Nor have their down-ballot counterparts been any more forthcoming.
While we've heard a great deal of rhetoric about Syria and Iraq, where happily far fewer ó though still too many ó U.S. military personnel are at risk, we've heard little or nothing from those who would lead us concerning how they would go about extricating the U.S. from a war that, on current evidence, we're no more likely to win than the one we lost 41 years ago.
The Korean War became known as the Forgotten War, displaced by the subsequent tragedy of Vietnam. Apparently those now seeking our vote aim to prove that invisibility is even more useful than amnesia.