Korea, site of what is considered the “Forgotten War” by many, is actually on the minds of more Americans lately. Or at least the current version of the enduring enmity between Washington and Pyongyang, as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un unrelentingly tests weapons systems. The “situation in North Korea” is “the most important problem facing the country today,” 4 percent of Americans told Gallup in August, up from an asterisk in June.
Conversely, Afghanistan — the subject of President Donald Trump’s address to the nation on Monday and September’s Global Minnesota “Great Decisions” dialogue — didn’t even crack an asterisk. “War/Wars (nonspecific)/Fear of War” as a general category was mentioned by just 1 percent. This, despite a reported 3,900 additional troops to soon join the nearly 8,400 officially already deployed.
The scant Afghanistan attention reflects a military, but hardly a society, at war. And because of (or perhaps the cause of) Afghanistan becoming another forgotten war, reporting resources to cover the conflict have declined, too.
One telling example came during a recent background briefing by the top U.S. envoy in Kabul (the news media isn’t the only institution de-emphasizing Afghanistan; an ambassador to Afghanistan was nominated just a month ago). The event was attended by the members of the Western press corps — all six of them, that is, compared to the 20-30 reporters who routinely attended in recent years, according to Rod Nordland, the Kabul bureau chief for the New York Times.
The Times, Nordland said from Kabul, has kept its commitment to covering not just the war, but the broader regional dynamics involving India and Pakistan, two key nations Trump focused on in his explanation of what he deemed a South Asian strategy.
Nordland said that reporters from the Washington Post, Reuters and Al Jazeera attended the briefing, along with two freelancers. Other print publications intermittently deploy reporters, too, he said, and added that the Associated Press currently does not have a full-time, dedicated presence in Afghanistan.
And some of the best video reporting, Nordland said, is being done by scrappy upstart VICE News, not august broadcast networks. That qualitative judgment is met by this quantitative fact: In 2016, the three network evening news programs dedicated a total of 10 minutes to Afghanistan, according to the Tyndall Report, which tracks network news stories.
Like his piercing reporting, Nordland was unflinching in his analysis of the coverage.
“Most Western news organizations have pretty much abandoned Afghanistan,” he said. “Partly it’s because readers have abandoned Afghanistan, they’ve lost interest in it.” Nordland listed other factors, including rising security costs due to dangerous reporting conditions, and the need to cover international news elsewhere.
But, bluntly, he concluded: “It’s old news. We’ve been here a long time and people are kind of tired of the same-old story.”
U.S. forces have been there a long time, too. Whether they’re tired of the same-old story isn’t known, since they continue to display the professionalism characteristic of the world’s best military. But Nordland believes that the curbed coverage, and thus Americans’ lower awareness and appreciation, “must be really rough on them, people that are risking their lives.”
Many Minnesotans have taken such risks since 9/11. The Minnesota Army National Guard has mobilized 1,125 soldiers to Afghanistan, and many Minnesota Air National Guard members based in Kyrgyzstan or Kuwait have flown in support of Afghan operations. Tragically, not all make it back. Minnesota National Guard Specialist George W. Cauley of Walker was among the 30 Minnesotans across all branches of the military who lost their lives in Afghanistan.
Even if there is less awareness from the broad American family, military families are very well-informed and well-connected with those deployed, said Capt. Nolan Kohlrusch, whose Minnesota National Guard aviation unit deployed to Afghanistan in July 2016. He has since returned and said in an interview that “some of the most important things we do is expectation management and setting things up, so that when we step foot on that plane or the day we say goodbye we know as a soldier that the families are taken care of.”
While Kohlrusch is confident that the troops he led knew they had support for and from their homes, he said that the broader homefront tune-out is a “travesty.”
Previously, Kohlrusch added, “there was a great patriotism and love of nation that brought everybody together post-9/11 and the years after that and even during pretty much all the time that everybody knew we were trying to get Osama [bin Laden]. And as the years go on, it slowly, unfortunately, becomes a little less relevant. Now, it’s a complex issue because … time is the greatest healer — and greatest eroder — of anything.”
We erode as a unified nation if we take for granted, let alone ignore, those extraordinary, even repeated, sacrifices. And awareness, Nordland said, is also vigilance. “A lot of what is happening here is being done in secret.”
Most profoundly, awareness is key to our collective national life. “That’s kind of foundational for a democratic society, particularly when we have armed forces involvement, that we have journalists covering it,” Nordland said.
And Americans reading, watching and listening to coverage of the conflict, no matter how long it endures, so Afghanistan doesn’t become this generation’s forgotten war.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
Once a month, the theme of this column is determined by the “Great Decisions” dialogue on foreign policy, conducted in partnership with the nonprofit citizen engagement organization Global Minnesota. Want to join the conversation? Go to globalminnesota.org.