Editor’s note: For an alternative point of view, read this, this or this.
We will never forget, say the bumper stickers, which often bear the image of the smoking Twin Towers superimposed across the red and white stripes of the flag.
But we have forgotten. Or at least we have forgotten that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, demanded that we go to war in Afghanistan.
This war flares anew, and every day seems to reach some new marker—the most deaths in any year for American and international forces, a tally of U.S. casualties for August that makes it the deadliest month. Public weariness deepens. CNN recently found a precipitous drop in support for the war effort. The Washington Post uncovered a more troubling sentiment: A slim majority now says the Afghanistan War isn’t worth fighting.
This is alarming, and inexplicable.
In less than two weeks, the dusty pit in Lower Manhattan that is now a construction site will again serve as hallowed ground, as families of the dead gather at what is, for most of them, their loved ones’ grave. New York will hear the doleful sound of bagpipes, and the city will fall silent as the names of the dead are called one by one. The Pentagon ceremony will be less publicized, but no less poignant.
I have often been repulsed by the politicization of 9/11, and by any effort by either political party to gain advantage from its commemoration. Maybe now, though, we need this reminder because too many forget.
They forget why we are in Afghanistan—because it was there in a faraway land of poverty, tribal animosities and historic hostility toward outsiders that a sophisticated terrorist network was allowed to take root, to flourish and plot the spectacular attack. Afghanistan today is once again such a caldron.
That George W. Bush botched the effort there is tragic. The then-president duped the nation into believing that an invasion of Iraq was necessary to the fight against terrorism, and devoted far more resources to war there than we expended in the crucial war in Afghanistan—a historic blunder.
But it is no excuse for making another calamitous mistake now.
The flagging public support for the Afghanistan effort, Georgetown University terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman says, is a consequence of the Iraq distraction and public fatigue with that war. “Combine that with the economic downturn, the fact that there hasn’t been a serious attack since 9/11, and a sense of complacency sets in—which to me vitiates the lessons of 9/11,” he said in an interview.
President Barack Obama pledged during his campaign to redirect American resources from Iraq to the effort to wrest Afghanistan from the Taliban’s tightening hold and from the grip of the poverty, corruption and regional lawlessness that enabled al-Qaida to make the country a haven. To abandon Obama’s nascent strategy there before seeing if it can work is folly.
And it would be a betrayal.
The activist, liberal Democrats who powered Obama to the Democratic presidential nomination last year based on his opposition to the Iraq war are the ones who are souring most quickly on Afghanistan, polls show. In May, an early indicator of liberal discontent emerged when the House voted on a war spending measure that 60 members—most of them liberal Democrats—opposed. “I don’t think the president can assume that he is going to have the support of the American people in Afghanistan,” says Lee Hamilton, president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former member of Congress from Indiana. The dissent in the House, Hamilton says, is a “clear danger signal.”
Obama has been hearing much grousing—some of it from me—from core supporters who are upset at the course of health care legislation, his detainee policy and other issues. These troubles fade when seen in the context of a failure in Afghanistan and a more problematic Pakistan that could emerge from a precipitous American withdrawal.
“You can make the argument that we’re in way over our heads, that we’re in a quixotic quest—except that there is still al-Qaida,” Hoffman says. “If we don’t succeed—and success for me is stabilizing Afghanistan and fixing Pakistan—we’re looking at another 9/11.”
Obama needs to jolt us out of our complacency, and soon. The Bush administration’s fear-mongering was distastefully political. But sometimes we really do have something to be scared about. If we’ve learned anything from 9/11, we should understand that time is now.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group