Romney rarely mentions the war in his speeches at public campaign events and fundraisers. When he does, his comments usually are devoid of specifics. At a Republican National Committee event in Arizona in April, he said that Obama has made “a number of errors in the way he managed our relationship there,” but he did not provide details or say what he would do differently.
The president is almost as taciturn. In remarks to supporters and donors, he often cites the war, but usually in just one sentence that emphasizes how he is seeking to scale back U.S. involvement. (His two favored versions of that sentence: “We’re transitioning out of Afghanistan” and “We’re winding down the war in Afghanistan.”)
He rarely tries to make the case that his troop surge succeeded, that the more than 50,000 troops he sent over in 2009 and 2010 have pummeled the Taliban and increased the Afghan government’s chances of holding onto large swaths of the country.
The candidates have a shared reason for ignoring Afghanistan. It has stretched into the longest war in U.S. history, and Americans are tired of it. With an anemic economy on the home front, pollsters say that voters want to hear a substantive discussion about jobs, taxes, government spending and health care — not about a murky conflict half a world away.
But even if voters wanted to confront the war, each candidate would still have his own motives to run from it.
Obama doesn’t want to remind his liberal base that he more than doubled the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. His decision in late 2009to send 30,000 more military personnel — made over the objections of Vice President Biden and several of his most senior White House advisers — was deeply unpopular with Democrats, even though he pledged to begin reducing forces in 2011.
If Obama were to include a discussion of Afghanistan in his speeches, he would inevitably have to address the troop increases. He could argue that the surge forces did succeed in beating back the Taliban in parts of southern Afghanistan, giving the Afghan government and its army a chance to take charge of those places. But those gains occurred against a backdrop of escalating violence elsewhere. In my recent book on the Afghan war, “Little America,” I write that a CIA assessment conducted last year concluded that the surge’s successes in the south had been offset by losses in the east and that the country was “trending to stalemate.”