The presidential election held our attention for nearly two years. The economic collapse consumed our thoughts. The swine flu has scared us. The health care debate has raised our blood pressure.
Meanwhile, men and women have continued to cross the ocean on their way to two wars. We hardly seem to notice except for ceremonial occasions. When soldiers in fatigues pass by at the Atlanta airport, they get obligatory applause from those waiting in the latte lines.
It’s hard to believe we are still engaged in two armed conflicts. The wars have gone on so long they’ve lost their immediacy in our lives — that is, unless you are immediately affected, such as having a loved one a world away or gone for good. Then, the wars mean everything. And the public indifference must surely be a source of blinding rage.
Of course, the war headlines are still there. They’re just buried beneath other pressing matters, like unemployment figures or health care town hall gatherings.
But the war debates will liven up again. Too many questions remain. What is our overall purpose, our strategy? What is “success?” Can we achieve that success with our current numbers? When can we leave Iraq or Afghanistan?
The focus has clearly shifted from Iraq back to Afghanistan. It makes sense for us to try to keep Afghanistan out of Taliban control. Al Qaeda attacked us. And the Taliban and al Qaeda are closely allied.
Our military quickly drove the Taliban out of Afghanistan in 2001, but the success of that was complicated by the fact that the Taliban and al Qaeda took up safe haven in a neighboring, nuclear-armed Islamic state, Pakistan. So, the terrorists essentially traded one patch of protected dirt for a more protected patch.
When it comes to pursuing bin Laden, both the Bush and Obama administrations have had to deal with Pakistan. And this has proved very difficult, whether you’re a Republican or Democrat. I think Iraq split this country on partisan lines, with many in the GOP thinking it was a wise action and more Democrats thinking it was a bad move. But getting the folks who hit us on 9/11 — bin Laden and al Qaeda — has never been much of a political fight. People on the left and right can agree that this is a proper goal.
But the pursuit of killers into Pakistan comes with numerous complications. Is Pakistan our friend or foe? They appear to be both at times.
They say they are committed to getting bin Laden and fighting the Taliban. Then again, they have a clear incentive to string us along, getting U.S. support as they “search.” Likewise, if they make too big a show of fighting militants, they risk alienating many in their country who support them and facing a violent backlash. The continued U.S. support for Pakistan in fighting Islamic militants also means that Pakistan’s biggest enemy, India, must accept an alliance between the U.S. and Pakistan, which strains U.S. relations with India. Pakistan has much of its armed forces committed to its eastern border. They seem to fear India more than the Taliban. And if there is a nuclear catastrophe in this world, it seems a high probability that it will be a blowup between these two nations. That’s why the attacks by Islamic extremists in Mumbai, India, were particularly scary. If India perceived those attacks as state-sanctioned by the Pakistani government, then what?
Yes, here’s where some folks respond to complications with simple answers. They inevitably jump in with “nuc’ em’ all” rhetoric. If that’s your belief, there’s no arguing you back from that. I won’t try. I’ll just say that I’m glad you don’t have access to the button. And I believe that the indiscriminate “exterminate-them-all” attitude is why we call a terrorist a terrorist. I don’t want to share that bond with them.
No, there are no simple answers. The best hope for “success” is helping both Iraq and Afghanistan become self-sufficient societies where terrorists don’t have any hope of taking root, because their own governments prevent it.
But how in the world do you make that happen? That’s a question meant for a greater mind than mine. Such questions stretch over many years and many conflicts.
In the meantime, our troops will quietly pack their bags to family tears and little fanfare, trudging through the airport terminals away from their loved ones and into those faraway fires.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.
Zach,you have no idea how timely this article is for me.I was as guilty as anybody about not paying attention to the conflicts over seas.Two weeks ago my son Gabe called me from colledge in Tennessee and informed me he had joined the National Guard and was planning on a career in the military.He will be 21 in November so the choice was his to make.What made me most ashamed was that I got to thinking about all the boys and girls I had coached over the years who had made the same descion.I promised them I would always remember them and help them any way I could and then didn't follow through.God bless every single person defending our country and the parents and other family members of each.