The midterm elections are two weeks away and President Trump’s strategy for the country’s longest war is not going well.
In one of the most brazen attacks in recent memory, a U.S. brigadier general was shot and the top commander in Afghanistan targeted last week by a Taliban gunman, who was able to assassinate two top Afghan officials.
This week, a member of the Afghan security forces apparently turned on members of the U.S.-led coalition, killing one and wounding two others. All as the conflict, which costs taxpayers about $3 billion per month, entered its 18th year.
“Things are not improving,” said Bill Roggio, the editor of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal. Roggio, who has studied the conflict for years, and his colleague Thomas Joscelyn, have now declared that the U.S. has lost the war in Afghanistan.
But as voters go to the polls for midterm elections that many believe will hinge on President Trump, the president’s year-old Afghanistan strategy is not only unlikely to affect the outcome but is largely nonexistent in the public debate.
“There is no question that it has fallen off the charts. Just look at news reports, you hardly ever hear about it,” said Fran Coombs, the managing editor of Rasmussen Reports, a polling company that tracks the midterm elections.
The lack of public interest is reflected in election polling. Rasmussen’s most recent poll on Afghanistan in July found that 21 percent of voters do not think the U.S. is still at war and 21 percent don’t know.
Both Gallup and the Pew Research Center said they have not even done any polling on Afghanistan for the midterms, an indication of where the war ranks among election issues.
A Pew poll of the general public this month did find 49 percent of the country believes the U.S. has failed to achieve its goals in Afghanistan.
Foreign policy rarely holds major sway over national elections, but Afghanistan and the recent high-level attacks come at what could be a pivotal point in the 9/11-era war, what veterans have come to call the “forever war.”
Trump unveiled his plan in August 2017 to send an additional 4,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan in the hope of forcing the Taliban into peace talks.
“Since Trump announced a reboot of the Afghan strategy, the goal was we’ll add additional military personnel, work closely with the Afghan military, we’ll beat them back on the battlefield and force them to the negotiating table. Well, none of that has happened,” Roggio said.
The Pentagon has insisted the new strategy is working, but none of it has seemed to break through to the public and voters.
“I think there is no question if public figures put more of a spotlight on it people will care more about it,” Coombs said.
Trump himself has rarely mentioned Afghanistan since deploying the additional troops, and mostly in passing or at Medal of Honor ceremonies.
“We discuss it all the time,” he said Tuesday when questioned about the success of his war strategy during a White House meeting with military leaders. Asked about the attack and wounding of a U.S. general, Trump said, “We feel very badly about that, it’s war. It’s a tough business.”
In July, the president mentioned Afghanistan briefly during two official White House events, citing “tremendous success” while hosting Italy’s prime minister and telling a veterans' convention that “for the first time in years, we're making a lot of progress in Afghanistan.”
In the meantime, Trump has been talking about rethinking U.S. relationships with allies abroad and entanglements overseas. He said in March that he would bring the roughly 2,000 troops fighting the Islamic State in Syria home “very soon,” though now his administration has signaled the forces will remain until Iran leaves.
That is the message that could reach voters, Rick Dearborn, Trump’s former deputy chief of staff and now a member the Cypress Group consulting firm, said during a discussion on the midterm elections at the American Enterprise Institute.
“He’s tapped into what I think has been a serious fatigue for this country for a lot of moms and a lot of dads out there who’ve had their kids injured in the last wars that we’ve been in and I think are probably pretty grateful that he’s not trying to redeploy them everywhere in the world right now,” Dearborn said about voter attitudes on Trump’s foreign policy.
Roggio said he does not blame the public for the lack of interest in the Afghanistan War. He said the government is treating it like a “backwater problem” that the average person should not be concerned about.
“If it is not important to the government it is probably not important to the people, they are just not going to recognize it,” he said.