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It will soon be a decade since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to hunt for Osama bin Laden and oust the Taliban. Initially, there was enormous public interest in that war and the war in Iraq, which began about 18 months later.
But NPR's Jackie Northam reports that for most Americans, both wars have simply fallen of the radar.
JACKIE NORTHAM: When U.S. Special Forces swept into Afghanistan on October 7th, 2001, they were riding on a wave of anger, disbelief, and a call for justice by a broad swath of the American public.
Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, says support for the invasion of Afghanistan was sky-high, around 90 percent, and developments were closely followed by a large number of people. Kohut says since then, the public has been slowly disengaging from the war.
ANDREW KOHUT: In 2001 and 2002, our weekly polls found about 40 percent of the public saying they were following news about Afghanistan very closely. By 2009 through 2011, that 40 percent has shrunk to 25 percent. And we see the same pattern with Iraq.
NORTHAM: Kohut says he's not surprised by these numbers. The public is typically more engaged at the start of a military operation. But he says the support and interest in the Iraq War started to tumble within months after it began in March 2003.
KOHUT: The public soured on the decision to go to war in Iraq by 2004, when not only were there no weapons of mass destruction found, but all of a sudden the cost of that war began to increase, casualties began to be rather substantial.
NORTHAM: Army Colonel Matthew Moten, a professor of history at West Point Military Academy, says it's unrealistic to sustain public interest on any issue year after year. Moten says the American public has obviously moved on from the two wars to currently more pressing matters.
MATTHEW MOTEN: I think that the public has other issues on its mind, collectively; namely the economy, jobs, the problems with federal deficit and debt. And those seem to be trumping concerns about the war for most of the populace.
NORTHAM: Christopher Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the CATO Institute, senses frustration amongst the public that not more has been achieved in either conflict, despite the hundreds of billions of dollars spent and the loss of more than 6,000 U.S. service personnel.
CHRISTOPHER PREBLE: And there's a sense in both of these wars, the nature of these wars, you're not expecting a heroic victory of the sort that we came to expect from wars like World War I and World War II. It looks like more Vietnam, a acceptable end - something less than defeat.
NORTHAM: West Point's Moten says only a fraction of the American public is actually involved in either war. He says people would likely be more interested if they had to shoulder some of the responsibility, make more sacrifices.
MOTEN: I call that having skin in the game. If America had a draft at the moment, even a very small draft. If mothers and fathers knew that there was some real chance that their sons and daughters might be conscripted into the military, I think they would pay a great deal more attention to what's going on in Iraq and Afghanistan.
NORTHAM: But it's not just the public that's lost focus on the wars. Many cash-strapped news agencies have pulled back on their coverage. And the two conflicts barely cause a ripple on the campaign trail, especially among Republican presidential candidates, says the CATO's Preble.
PREBLE: In the case of Iraq, many Republicans don't want to call attention to Iraq because that would remind the American public that they were in fact the cheerleaders for this war that most Americans now think was a horrible mistake.
NORTHAM: Preble says the war in Afghanistan is more complicated because it's still seen as critical to counter-terrorism efforts. But that doesn't guarantee a greater interest in the conflict or the 100,000 U.S. troops still fighting there.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
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