In the last month, the United States has hit three milestones in the war in Afghanistan.
In late September, the 33,000 additional soldiers that President Barack Obama ordered to Afghanistan in late 2009 came home, leaving 68,000 troops in the country as part of the 108,000-person NATO force. Also last month, the number of U.S. soldiers killed hit 2,000. And this past Sunday marked the 11th anniversary of the longest war in American history.
One milestone the United States has not yet hit is the ability to answer the question: Why on earth are we still there? Maybe that's because, in addition to being America's longest war, Afghanistan is a contender for America's least-talked about war. In Obama's weekly radio address, delivered the day before the anniversary date, the word "Afghanistan" wasn't spoken a single time. Nor did we hear it during Mitt Romney's acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. In the first presidential debate, the word came up exactly once, in the context of Obama boasting about how he's willing to "take ideas from anybody," which is "how we're going to wind down the war in Afghanistan."
Yes, we're winding it down — by the end of 2014. But how many American soldiers are going to die between now and then? If we know we're leaving, and we don't know why we're staying, it makes each additional death seem especially sad and cruel. Right now, American and coalition troops are dying at a rate of about one a day. That puts the 800 or so days until we're scheduled to withdraw into a sober context.
As we prepare to add more than two years to our 11-year war, let's look at results from the first decade. In addition to the 2,000 American dead, there have been over 1,000 coalition forces killed. Over 17,000 American soldiers have been wounded. As of October, 2012 ranks as the fourth-deadliest year for American troops there. There have been an estimated 20,000 Afghan civilians killed. Over 3,200 American troops have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury.
As for the surge, nearly 1,000 of those American soldiers were killed or died of combat injuries since the surge was announced. What's more, as national security reporter Spencer Ackerman writes, "according to most of the yardsticks chosen by the military — but not all — the surge in Afghanistan fell short of its stated goal: stopping the Taliban's momentum."
For instance, in August 2009, shortly before the surge began, there were 2,700 attacks on U.S. and allied troops. In August of this year, there were just under 3,000. In August 2009, there were nearly 600 homemade bombs used against U.S. and allied troops. In August 2012? Just over 600.
The war has barely come up in an election that has already seemed interminable. Will it come up in the next presidential debate, which is supposed to be devoted to foreign policy? Maybe, but it seems there won't be much of an actual debate, at least about Afghanistan. "I will pursue a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014," said Romney in his major foreign policy speech last week at the Virginia Military Institute. "This is precisely the same position the current administration takes," writes Zach Beauchamp of ThinkProgress.org.
Again, why are we there? The patriotic bromides and Pentagon jargon are standard issue, but in this case they're dangerous because they obscure the harsh reality of what's actually going on over there.
What can we do? "We as the American public have a choice beyond voicing our disapproval to pollsters," writes political activist Robert Greenwald. "We can elect candidates who have learned lessons from the last decade and are not so quick to try and solve complex international problems with invasions, occupations and drone strikes."
At the very least, we must shake off our collective complacency about our longest war, and force our leaders to explain, exactly, why it needs to last even one day longer.
Arianna Huffington is founder of The Huffington Post; firstname.lastname@example.org.