Afghanistan optimism at the presidential foreign policy debate

October 23, 2012

A U.S. soldier at patrol base Baraki Barak, Logar province, Afghanistan. (MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/GettyImages)

Both President Obama and Mitt Romney exuded confidence during Monday night's debate that the planned U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan would proceed on schedule for 2014, despite the country's deep problems and long-struggling U.S. effort there.

Obama's assessment that "we’re now in a position where we can transition out" got a boost from his challenger, who declined to highlight the setbacks in building up Afghanistan's ability to sustain its own polity and security. "The surge has been successful and the training program is proceeding apace," Romney said, declaring, "We’re going to be finished by 2014 ... So our troops will come home at that point." Obama's policy would leave a residual force of about 10,000; its not clear if Romney was suggesting he would not do this.

Romney had debated forcefully against a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq during the 2008 Republican primary. That he has not taken a similar position on Afghanistan now is particularly striking because it led him to call his opponent's policies there successful, which is not a exactly a consensus position among Afghanistan-watchers. "I nearly spit out my drink when Romney said the Afghanistan surge had 'worked,'" Tufts professor Dan Drezner wrote at his Foreign Policy blog.

The candidates' shared optimism is a testament to the U.S. politics around the Afghan war. An April Pew survey found that a majority of "swing" voters support rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan. But that may have led both Obama and Romney to embrace views of the war -- and thus policies toward it -- that are, as the great Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran put it, "at odds with many assessments":

Both candidates voiced an upbeat view of Afghanistan, particularly the development of its security services, that is at odds with many independent assessments of the situation there, and even the views of some U.S. military officials and diplomats.

Obama said, “There’s no reason why Americans should die when Afghans are perfectly capable of defending their own country.” Romney noted that the training program “is proceeding apace.”

But as The Post reported this weekend, no Afghan army battalion is capable of operating without U.S. advisers; many policemen spend more time shaking down people for bribes than patrolling; front-line units often do not receive the fuel, food and spare parts they need to function. Intelligence, aviation and medical services remain embryonic. And perhaps most alarming, an increasing number of Afghan soldiers and police officers are turning their weapons on their U.S. and NATO partners.

Many U.S. and Afghan officials fear that some Afghan army and police units simply will crumble as coalition forces leave in the next two years and Taliban insurgents increase pressure on the government.

Nor did either candidate mention other key threats to Afghan stability: rampant corruption, the failure of President Hamid Karzai’s government to provide basic services to the population, and Pakistan’s continued support for some elements of the Taliban. A good follow-up question would have centered on the potential for peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

 
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Max Fisher · October 23, 2012