Is the 'forever war' now the 'forgotten war?'

The 16 year history of Presidents, Afghanistan and the State of the Union

Matt Saintsing
January 31, 2018 - 12:57 pm

Photo by Sgt. Matthew Callahan

Afghanistan made its 16th appearance last night at President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union Address. Sandwiched in the national security section, between Guantanamo Bay and recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the commander in chief had these two sentences to say about the country now entering its 17th year of conflict:

“And at the same time, as of a few months ago, our warriors in Afghanistan also have new rules of engagement. Along with their heroic Afghan partners, our military is no longer undermined by artificial timelines, and we no longer tell our enemies our plans.”

Those two sentences come off the heels of three separate attacks by the Taliban and ISIS in and around Kabul, which resulted in more than 100 deaths, including Americans. Rather than stating realistic strategic goals, Mr. Trump offered a rebuke of his predecessor, before moving on to check additional boxes concerning national security.

And while Afghanistan continues to evolve in the consciousness of three separate U.S. Presidents, any progress has largely stagnated, and its bloodshed remains far from most American minds. The forever war is slowly becoming the forgotten war. 

If the 16 previous State of the Unions tell us anything, it’s that the war in Afghanistan will outlast American mindfulness of the conflict. Here's a timeline of Afghanistan in State of the Unions: 

George W. Bush

  •  2002 State of the Union Address. Still reeling from the terrorist attacks on September 11, the country made its way 13 times into the speech.  

“Our progress is a tribute to the spirit of the Afghan people, to the resolve of our coalition, and to the might of the United States military…

“What we have found in Afghanistan confirms that, far from ending there, our war against terror is only beginning.”

  • By the end of that year, 9,700 Americans were in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban.
  • One year later, Bush gave a nod to nation-building while touting American accomplishments.

In Afghanistan, we helped to liberate an oppressed people. And we will continue helping them secure their country, rebuild their society, and educate all their children, boys and girls.”

  • Bush claimed in 2006  that:

"We remain on the offensive in Afghanistan, where a fine president and a National Assembly are fighting terror while building the institutions of a new democracy.”

  • He also mentioned the U.S. was on the offensive in Iraq “with a clear plan for victory.”
  • In 2007, more international aspects of the war was highlighted 

“NATO has taken the lead in turning back the Taliban and al-Qaeda offensive, the first time the Alliance has deployed forces outside the North Atlantic area.”

  • In his final State of the Union, Bush in 2008 was more insightful while harkening back to the same U.S. accomplishes he mentioned in previous addresses:

“Thanks to the courage of these military and civilian personnel, a nation that was once a safe haven for al-Qaeda is now a young democracy where boys and girls are going to school, new roads and hospitals are being built, and people are looking to the future with new hope. These successes must continue, so we're adding 3,200 marines to our forces in Afghanistan, where they will fight the terrorists and train the Afghan Army and police. Defeating the Taliban and Al Qaida is critical to our security, and I thank the Congress for supporting America's vital mission in Afghanistan.”

Barack Obama

  • In 2009, in his first address to Congress, Mr. Obama sought to turn a new page for the conflict.

“And with our friends and allies, we will forge a new and comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan to defeat Al Qaida and combat extremism, because I will not allow terrorists to plot against the American people from safe havens halfway around the world. We will not allow it.

  • He ordered a surge in the country later that year, ballooning American military presence to 100,000 U.S. troops.
  • By 2010, Obama publicized a new strategy of shifting the burden from the U.S. to Afghans themselves.

“We’re increasing our troops and training Afghan security forces so they can begin to take the lead in July of 2011 and our troops can begin to come home.”

  • When 2011 rolled around, Obama warned of “tough fighting ahead,” but again mentioned the intent to bring U.S. troops home.

“In Afghanistan, our troops have taken Taliban strongholds and trained Afghan security forces. Our purpose is clear: By preventing the Taliban from reestablishing a stranglehold over the Afghan people, we will deny Al Qaida the safe haven that served as a launching pad for 9/11...

...Thanks to our heroic troops and civilians, fewer Afghans are under the control of the insurgency. There will be tough fighting ahead, and the Afghan government will need to deliver better governance. But we are strengthening the capacity of the Afghan people and building an enduring partnership with them. This year, we will work with nearly 50 countries to begin a transition to an Afghan lead, and this July, we will begin to bring our troops home.”

  • By 2013, Obama confidently declared that by the end of the next year “our war in Afghanistan will be over.”
  • He also, perhaps unknowingly, hinted to the next chapter of the war on terror that would spread to other fragile states.

“We're negotiating an agreement with the Afghan Government that focuses on two missions: training and equipping Afghan forces so that the country does not again slip into chaos and counterterrorism efforts that allow us to pursue the remnants of al-Qaeda and their affiliates.”

  • Just two years later Obama touted “Tonight, for the first time since 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over.”

In the year since Mr. Trump took office, he unveiled a new strategy for Afghanistan, and the administration is posturing to possibly add an additional 1,000 troops this year beyond the 14,000 currently in deployed.

Troop numbers will continue to ebb and flow for the forseeable future in the war-torn nation with little accountability from Congress, or outrage from the American public.

Next year, there will surely be more of the same rhetoric that's plucked from a shelf, and dropped into sections of a speech, as if to say the President has met the minimum threshold of mentioning the endless war while proudly holding up the military on a pedestal.