Jul 20, 2009

Nation At War Loses Its Interest

Nation At War Loses Its Interest

By Frida Ghitis
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
July 17, 2009

As Americans followed the news about Michael Jackson's death with an interest bordering on obsession, the situation for American forces fighting in Afghanistan became deadlier than ever.

The day before Jackson's memorial service extravaganza -- watched by more than 30 million television v! iewers -- brought the worst one-day losses for the United States in almost a year. Seven soldiers died that day in Afghanistan, and the deaths have continued to mount for the U.S. and its allies.

Still, few people seem to have more than a passing interest in a war that seems so distant as to appear almost unreal.

The same people who planted "War is Not the Answer" signs in their yards to protest the Iraq conflict have little to say about this war. Afghanistan, after all, is more difficult to paint with broad strokes of black and white.

If you hated George W. Bush, you hated the Iraq war. Afghanistan, on the other hand, has become Barack Obama's war. And Obama, who opposed the war in Iraq, came to office as a hero of the anti-war movement, even if he always said he did not oppose all wars, "only dumb ones."

Perhaps the challenge of deciding if this is a "dumb war" has become a hurdle too high to jump. As a result, people have tuned out.

A look a! t the most popular story lists on news Web sites betrays a lack of con cern for what is happening in Afghanistan that can only bring more despair to the families receiving the throat-closing news that their loved ones' lives have ended.

By some counts, July is already the deadliest month in eight years of war. According to icasualties.org, a Web site keeping track of US and allied casualties, 737 Americans have died in Afghanistan since the war started a few weeks after Sept. 11. At this writing, 45 coalition soldiers had already died in July alone. By the time you read this, the numbers may have grown.

And yet, the New York Times lists of most searched, most e-mailed and most blogged stories in the last seven and 30 days does not even show Afghanistan in the rankings. As I write this, the list for the most popular searches of the past 24 hours, shows Afghanistan at No. 42, far behind queries such as, "Palin," "iPhone" or, of course, "sex."

The British, who lost 15 soldiers in the past 10 days, have engaged in a fierce debate ! over what their troops have faced on the Afghan battlefield. Both major parties agree on the worthiness of the mission, but the government faces angry complaints about inadequate equipment.

As the deadly summer continues to unfold, Americans will eventually, if reluctantly, begin to cast their attention to Afghanistan. Sooner or later we will ponder the key question: Is this war worth the cost?

Some possibly forgot why Americans even went there. In Afghanistan, the U.S. faces the Taliban, religious fanatics who all but imprisoned their women and oppressed the population with a brutally extreme interpretation of Islam.

More importantly for America, they gave Osama Bin Laden a place to train al-Qaida operatives and plan the Sept. 11 attacks that killed more than 3,000 Americans. The Taliban lost power after the U.S. retaliated. But while Washington focused on Iraq they regrouped and regained territory. The Taliban in Afghanistan are closely linked with their! brethren in nuclear-armed Pakistan.

If Obama faces difficult ch allenges today, what will happen if the current strategy to push back the Taliban fails. Then what? Obama already ordered an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan. By the time the country holds elections this fall, 68,000 Americans will stand on Afghan soil. If the country begins unraveling, Obama will have to decide whether to double down or accept defeat and withdraw. Withdrawal could hand the Taliban a base from which to attack the West and achieve their stated goal of seizing Pakistan's nuclear weapons. If Obama decides to pour more American forces into the war effort, he could risk the same fate as presidents before him, who have seen their presidencies consumed, almost destroyed, by increasingly unpopular wars.

Whether we like it or not, America remains at war. The stakes remain high, and we will eventually have to pay attention. Until now, most Americans have found it easy to look away, focus on celebrity news and other items that may tug at the heart strings ! but are less consequential to the future of the country. That must soon change.

Frida Ghitis, a world affairs columnist in Decatur, is the author of "The End of Revolution: a Changing World in the Age of Live Television."

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