WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nine years into one of the longest wars in U.S. history, conflict-weary Americans are on the verge of electing a new Congress with barely a whisper of debate about the ongoing struggle in Afghanistan.
While a few candidates like former Army Green Beret Tommy Sowers and ex-combat pilot Adam Kinzinger address the conflict in their campaigns for the November 2 midterm elections, surveys show very few voters see the Afghanistan war as a concern.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll this week found that Americans rated Afghanistan bottom of a list of seven issues that Congress should deal with in 2011.
“There should at least be a debate going on. It’s time to get out of those countries,” David Kramer, a retired steel mill worker, said recently while shopping at a mall in Lorain, Ohio.
“Every week we’re burying another soldier,” he added. “We can’t be the world’s policemen, we have to end it.”
President Barack Obama opposed the Iraq war as a candidate in 2008 but he has boosted U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan to 95,000. His course in Afghanistan sits easier with Republicans than it does with the more liberal wing of his own Democrats.
“You can really understand why neither party is talking a lot about it,” said Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute think tank.
“For the president, it’s a negative with his own party, which is why you don’t hear him talking about it,” she said. But Republicans “are not displeased with Obama” on the war.
The lack of voter concern about the war ahead of these elections is far different from four years ago, when then-President George W. Bush’s Republicans lost control of Congress in large part from discontent over the Iraq war.
If Obama’s Democrats lose control of one or both houses of Congress on November 2 — a real possibility — the reason is more likely to be voter anger over the economy, high unemployment and the massive government bailout of Wall Street.
Progress in Afghanistan has been slow for U.S. forces. After being driven from power when the war began in October 2001, the Taliban regrouped and reasserted itself while the Bush administration focused on Iraq.
Obama’s decision to boost troop levels this year has halted Taliban momentum after a tough summer of combat, U.S. officials say. But the war will not be won on the battlefield and a political reconciliation — still in its infancy — is the only way out, they add.
The war entered its 10th year on October 7, becoming by some counts the longest in U.S. history. Formal U.S. involvement in Vietnam, a far bloodier conflict, lasted 8 1/2 years. But experts point out U.S. involvement actually was much longer, and some Indian wars in the United States lasted longer than 10 years.
Few candidates have made Afghanistan a recurring theme in their campaigns. Sowers, a Missouri Democrat and former Green Beret trying to unseat a longtime Republican incumbent, sells camouflage ball caps to raise money and speaks about the war.
“I’d be the only Green Beret in Congress,” he said in a debate on Monday. “I’d use that stature to end these wars, bring our troops home and invest here in rural America.”
Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican trying to unseat a Democratic incumbent, weaves his personal story into campaign appearances — how he joined the Air Force after September 11 and has flown missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But many candidates are not pushing the war issue. As of Thursday, Ike Skelton, the Missouri Democrat who heads the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, hadn’t updated the Afghanistan page on his campaign website for months. It still referred to General Stanley McChrystal, ousted in June, as if he led U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Ken Ammann, a local Democratic official in Mercer County, Pennsylvania, said the war had not been discussed on the campaign trail because Republicans generally back Obama’s approach, even while opposing his July 2011 date for beginning to pull troops out of the country.
“People should be talking about it,” Ammann said while attending a local pumpkin festival parade. “We have people dying over there when we should not even be there.”
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a recent speech at Duke University in North Carolina, put his finger on one reason the war is not provoking debate — few people are affected.
“No major war in our history has been fought with a smaller percentage of this country’s citizens in uniform full-time,” Gates said. There are 2.4 million people, less than 1 percent of the population, serving in the military and reserves.
“For most Americans the wars remain an abstraction, a distant and unpleasant series of news items that do not affect them personally,” he said.
Michael O’Hanlon, a national security analyst at the Brookings Institution think tank, said the fact the war is not an election issue is “actually healthy.”
“What it essentially acknowledges is that people realize is it’s a new strategy. It may work, it may not work ... but to develop this new strategy, see whether it’s going to work or not, is going to take a little longer,” he said.
But if Obama doesn’t make significant progress toward stabilizing Afghanistan and bringing U.S. troops home over the next two years, that patience could wear out.
Voters have their sights set on his pledge to begin withdrawing U.S. forces, as conditions permit, next summer, and failure to meet that could turn Obama’s re-election campaign into a test of voter opinion on the war.
“This election is not being treated as a referendum on Afghanistan policy because it’s sort of the wrong moment to do that,” O’Hanlon said. “It doesn’t mean it’ll stay that way ... in 2012.”
Editing by Vicki Allen