An Indiana town reflects growing doubts among Americans about the Afghan war

Early returns suggest that about 40 percent of the country's voters went to the polls Saturday in the nation's second parliamentary election.
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 18, 2010; 12:17 AM

ELKHART, IND. - The Afghan war began more than half a lifetime ago for the teenagers in Adam Meyers's world history class. Some of his students think the terrorist attack that prompted the war was an airplane accident. To them, al-Qaeda remains a mystery, the Taliban an enigma.

The American battle for Afghanistan? "It doesn't register," Meyers said.

"We should just end it. Bring the troops home," said Ashley Ivory, 17, who thinks the war is doing nothing to stop terrorists. "They're just sneaking in here while we're over there. We don't have enough eyes."

The views of the students and the community around them echo a growing national skepticism about U.S. involvement in a distant war that will soon enter its 10th year and register its 1,270th U.S. casualty. A majority of Americans say the war has not been worth its cost, an opinion voiced frequently in Elkhart, a hard-luck town that sees the conflict through the lens of loss and economic hardship.

Meyers and his students have a particular reason to reflect. Army Spec. Justin B. Shoecraft, 28, who attended Elkhart Memorial High School with Meyers, was killed late last month by a roadside bomb, barely a month after he reached Afghanistan. When his mother in Elkhart heard the news, she screamed, then fainted.

President Obama, who has visited Elkhart twice as a candidate and twice as president to talk about economic troubles, has sharply increased U.S. deployments to Afghanistan in hopes of establishing a measure of stability before beginning a 2011 withdrawal. Yet public doubts seem to have risen with the death toll, rippling through the small cities and towns that send many of America's soldiers to war.

As combat deaths reached new monthly highs this year, 69 of the 301 U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan came from a dozen Midwestern states. Among the home towns of the fallen in the past month are Creve Coeur, Ill.; Mulvane, Kan.; Papillion, Neb.; Prairie du Sac, Wis.; White, S.D. And, on the morning of Aug. 24, Elkhart, Ind.

Disapproval of the war was once rare. When President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, four weeks after the Twin Towers fell, American support for the overthrow of the Taliban was strong. Ninety-one percent of Americans supported the war at the end of its second month, 79 percent of them "strongly," according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

In March 2009, the poll found that 64 percent of Americans agreed with Obama's plan to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. That same month, 56 percent of those polled said that the war there was, on balance, worth its costs. This July, however, the number seeing the war as worth it dropped to 43 percent, with 53 percent saying the costs outweighed the benefits.

Views in Elkhart tend toward exasperation, a collective throwing-up of hands, rather than the competing emotions of anger and pride over the Iraq war at its combustible peak. Even people who think U.S. troops should keep fighting tend to say so in reluctant tones.

"We're stuck. I just wish we could pull out, but we can't," said Becky Cole, an office manager having a drink recently at the Bulldog, a restaurant in east Elkhart. "The one thing I hate about it is we've been there nine years."

On the next stool, her friend Richard Meyers, a plant manager who lost his job in a downsizing four months ago, was drinking what he called a poor man's martini - Miller Lite with four olives. He was more blunt.

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