America’s “forgotten war” in Afghanistan, is missing in action again, squeezed out of the campaign narrative as President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney duel for the White House.
Americans still die in Afghanistan, 70,000 U.S. troops still serve, civilians are cut down in the crossfire and top U.S. brass says war strategy is under threat from rising insider attacks on NATO troops by Afghans.
But in a race consumed by economics, character attacks and over-hyped gaffes, Arlington National Cemetery’s fresh rows of headstones are an afterthought.
In 2004 and 2008, Iraq, and to a lesser extent Afghanistan, were grist for the political battle, but when foreign policy breaks cover in this race, it is Israel, China and Iran which steal the headlines.
Candidates are more likely to prattle on talk shows about what they wear to bed or their favorite sports teams than seek to build an mandate behind a specific war strategy.
Now the last U.S. surge troops have left the war, few congressional or presidential candidates discuss strategy, or question why soldiers must fight for another two years -- or ask what they will leave behind.
“There hasn’t been much of a focus on Afghanistan -- the focus there has been superficial and lacking specificity,” said Paul Rieckhoff, an army veteran and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Presidential “candidates have an obligation to remind the American public about the cost of war and at the same time to enlist them to help those who have shouldered that burden,” he said.
Romney did not even mention Afghanistan, where more than 2,000 Americans have died and thousands have been maimed, in his speech at the Republican National Convention.
The war surely burns the conscience of Obama, who signs condolence letters to relatives of the fallen and is responsible for its painful progress.
But after vowing to fix a “war of necessity” in 2008, he now only mentions the conflict and its veterans in passing on the campaign trail, though he has fought for jobs and health care for soldiers who came home.
“Four years ago, I promised to end the war in Iraq, and I did,” Obama said at a rally in Virginia Friday.
“I said we’d wind down the war in Afghanistan, and we are.”
“When our troops come home and take off their uniform, we will serve them as well as they’ve served us.”
Why is war talk so absent?
One answer: neither candidate sees it bringing any political gain.
“To the extent that we are waging this war without a public debate, I think that is a mistake,” said Stephen Biddle, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.
“I understand that the economy will be a dominant issue (but) we are killing others, and suffering casualties ourselves and spending billions of dollars.”
Obama, criticized by hawks for adding a withdrawal date to the Afghan surge he unveiled in 2009, made a shrewd political judgment to align policy to the sentiments of war-weary Americans who want troops home.
This left Romney little political space to chart a different path. The Republican now agrees with Obama on a 2014 deadline to withdraw troops -- after earlier condemning him for telling the Taliban when NATO will leave.
“The strategic issues have largely been resolved -- politically on the surge, the agreement on (Afghan President Hamid) Karzai’s 2014 timeline,” said Mark Jacobson, formerly deputy NATO Senior Civilian Representative in Kabul.
Eleven years after the September 11 attacks, America no longer seems a nation at war.
While the sight of wounded veterans is becoming familiar, the absence of a draft means sacrifice is confined to professional forces.
“They have been at war for 10 years and most Americans have been watching ‘American Idol’ and shopping,” Rieckhoff said.
Polls reveal that by two-to-one margins, Americans don’t think the Afghan conflict is worth fighting.
But there are no peace marches on the White House from a weary public content to ignore the war, so there is little direct pressure on politicians.
Though some analysts believe the insider attacks cast doubt on the mission to train Afghan forces on which the departure of U.S. and NATO troops depends, the latest killings have yet to penetrate the campaign.
That could change when Obama and Romney clash in debates next month -- but it is unclear how the Republican would alter policy.
Three hawkish senators -- John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman -- on Wednesday asked the White House for a “strategic pause” in troop withdrawals to assess the morale-busting impact of ‘green on blue’ killings of NATO troops by Afghan comrades.
But they were swiftly rebuffed and the story fell below the radar.
If there is a political consensus on Afghanistan, it is on the need to get out.
“If the Afghan people don’t stand up for themselves -- we can’t do it for them,” Republican Senate candidate George Allen said in a Virginia campaign debate -- drawing quick agreement from Democratic foe Tim Kaine.