The Passé War

BOSTON – As I travel a bit in the United States on a short break from Kabul, I am finding out that Afghanistan is so last year. The long and often static slog that we are currently engaged in cannot hope to distract the public’s attention from more dynamic and exciting events in the rest of the world.

 At a recent cocktail party I tried gamely to make conversation with my fellow guests, most of whom were highly educated, successful people from New York City.

“And where are you from?” asked a filmmaker, who is currently engaged in producing a celebrity wine-tasting program.


“Say again?”

It is not that my interlocutor was not interested in the war. But when he asked the inevitable “how’s it going over there?” things went rapidly downhill. I have never learned to smile, give vague and comforting answers, and move on, which is really all that is required at a social event. No one wants a lecture, least of all a depressing one.

“It’s been a downward spiral for years,” I explain, giving rapid-fire statistics on civilian casualties, Afghan and American public opinion, the unreliability of official data, and what I see as a real possibility of civil war breaking out.

He smiled politely, but I could see his eyes glazing over. Who wants to talk war and mayhem on a festive Saturday night?

“Yes, well, nice talking to you,” he said nervously, moving off to more congenial company.

This scenario was repeated, with minor variations, several times over the course of the evening. Afghanistan ranked just slightly above the latest Britney Spears comeback on the chit-chat meter.

There was much more traction in ruminating about the possibility that the world might end in 2012.

But on Afghanistan, all anyone wants to hear is that it is almost over.

“We are making progress, aren’t we?” asked a banker, almost wistfully.

It is difficult for me to answer questions like that. I wanted to point to the recent scandal in Kabul Bank, something he might have been able to muster some enthusiasm for, given his own specialty.

But what to say? The good news is that Kabul Bank is being liquidated, under severe pressure from the International Monetary Fund, which threatened to short-circuit many international assistance projects if the Afghan government refused to take action.

The bad news is that it will most likely entail a massive bailout amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars, along with a prolonged cover-up to protect those responsible for the fraud and dodgy practices that caused the bank to fail in the first place. Prosecution of the real perpetrators is a very remote possibility.

This is not what a New York finance expert wants to talk about over catfish fritters and coleslaw.

Civilian casualties, another favorite topic of mine, is another non-starter.

The news that a dozen or so non-combatants were killed or injured in Helmand province a few days ago fails to raise eyebrows. Night raids that often round up innocent people are also not something anyone can get too upset about.

“It’s a war,” shrugged one lawyer.

“Yes, but we are the ones killing them,” I try and point out. “It is undermining our efforts when we target civilians. We are supposed to be there to help.”

“Can’t solve the world’s problems,” said another woman dismissively. She runs a charitable foundation.

The only real dudgeon surrounding the war was its cost, which, I helpfully pointed out, was now over $100 billion dollars a year.

This is something that this particular New York crowd, with its multi-million-dollar homes in the Jersey suburbs, can relate to.

“With our economy in its present state, we just cannot afford it,” said one local educator. I suppose a defense contractor might have had a different perspective, but it wasn’t that kind of party.

In general, Afghanistan is not moving the meter much these days on the U.S. social radar, which is probably good news for those running for office. There is very little political capital to be gained in a conflict where there is no way to win, and no obvious way to exit with honor.

The Afghan war has had its Warholian 15 minutes of fame. It is time to cede the arena to more exciting topics. Lady Gaga, for example. She and Justin Bieber are praying for the victims of the tsunami in Japan.

Now if I can just figure out who Justin Bieber is …