Viewers watching the Senate Armed Services confirmation hearing for former Sen. Chuck Hagel Thursday could be forgiven for forgetting that America is at war.
Apparently, so did their senators.
In a marathon hearing that spanned eight hours, several Senate votes and one lunch break, Hagel's past statements and future outlook on Iran and the state of Israel won far more airtime than a conflict in which 66,000 US troops now serve. More time was spent discussing the appropriateness of talking with the leaders of Iran, with whom we are not currently at war, than the feasibility of talking to the leaders of the Taliban, with whom we presumably are. (Vice President Joe Biden noted a little over a year ago that the "Taliban per se is not our enemy.")
As the Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekran tweeted, "At Hagel hearing, 136 mentions of Israel and 135 of Iran. Only 27 refs to Afghanistan. 2 for Al Qaida. 1 for Mali."
In the hearing's second session the word Afghanistan received only one mention.
In their curious mix of apathy and amnesia concerning America's longest-ever war, senators on both sides reflect the views of the American public. Polling shows more than sixty percent of Americans no longer think the war is worth its cost. CNN notes that in a fall CNN/ORC International poll not even five percent named Afghanistan as "one of the most important issues facing" America. And fifty-one percent of respondents in a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll said the war was "not worth it.
The recent presidential campaign also made precious little mention of the war still being fought and for which National Guard units continue to deploy. The President talked about bringing a "responsible end" to the war while Vice President Joe Biden repeated throughout the summer and fall that "Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive." On the Republican side Clint Eastwood and his empty chair mentioned Afghanistan more than GOP nominee Mitt Romney at the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
As former Amb. Ronald Neumann noted recently at the Brookings Institution, the debate around the war's future "has been completely ignored in the electoral period, and it is being framed all too much in bumper sticker phrases, which simply are idiotic ways of trying to understand the complexity of Afghanistan."
Americans and politicking officials have clearly developed a habit of ignoring America's decade-long war, but it is curious to see the next Secretary of Defense receive so few inquiries from senators about the war whose end he will presumably oversee in the coming years. A thorny rash of unpleasant questions surrounding Afghanistan's future confront the president and the Pentagon's next chief. These include: how many U.S. troops to keep in Afghanistan, how to define their mission, how generously to fund the Afghan forces and at what levels, and whether and how to proceed with peace talks with the Taliban.
None of those issues, however, sat in the spotlight at Thursday's hearing.
To those few questions Hagel did receive on Afghanistan he offered vague and decidedly noncommittal answers, aside from noting that he fully supports the president's current policy to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014. But on the issue of post-2014 troop levels -of both American forces and the Afghan Army - Hagel said he did not want to speculate regarding exact numbers because he had not been aware of all conversations between President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
"As far as I know, as of this morning the president had not -- not made a decision on what a residual force, numbers-wise, would look like. I have not been included in those discussions, so I don't know, other than knowing that he's got a range of options, as you do," Hagel said regarding US troop levels. "As to what kind of a force structure should eventually be in place by the Afghans, I don't know enough about the specifics to give you a good answer, other than to say that I think that has to be a decision that is made, certainly, with the president of Afghanistan."
In 2008 then-candidate Sen. Barack Obama called Afghanistan the war "that we have to win." Now it is the war everyone wants to forget. Except those who cannot: on the same day as Hagel testified, the Kentucky National Guard announced it would hold two "departure ceremonies" for soldiers preparing for a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.
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