Republican Denver Riggleman and Democrat Leslie Cockburn are competing in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District. (Photos by Dayna Smith for The Washington Post)

Democratic congressional hopeful Leslie Cockburn says she has more credibility on Afghanistan than her Republican rival because she was on the ground there as a journalist while he, an Air Force intelligence officer, planned bombing raids over the country from a distant island.

“I covered three different wars in Afghanistan,” Cockburn said at a debate Monday night at Piedmont Virginia Community College in Charlottesville. “I covered the mujahideen war. I was in Kabul when the Taliban came in. And I was there during the American war. I will say, talking about the planned bombing raids right at the beginning of the war, Denver was not in Afghanistan. He was on Diego Garcia, which is 3,000 miles away from Afghanistan.”

Republican Denver Riggleman said that as chief of intelligence for the 34th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, he planned the first bombing raids over Afghanistan after 9/11 from Diego Garcia, a British island in the Indian Ocean.

Cockburn asserted that now-retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, not Riggleman, did the planning — and that the raids were unsuccessful. Deptula said Tuesday that the planning question was open to interpretation, but he called any assertion about missed targets “absolute nonsense.”

Her remarks also drew pushback from Riggleman and Republican allies.

“It’s hard to answer that in a way that doesn’t sound emotional,” Riggleman replied. “I’m not going to defend my military service because of what I’ve done, which has been pretty neat. But those . . . strikes on the caves — yeah, that was us. But I do appreciate the try.”

Garren Shipley, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, called her remarks “disgusting.”

“Not only did she demean his service to our nation, she tried to elevate her own time as a reporter to the same level,” Shipley said. “There’s a fundamental difference between these two candidates. Denver Riggleman went overseas to fight and risk his life for his country. Leslie Cockburn went overseas to get better ratings.”

Cockburn is a former “60 Minutes” producer who also worked for networks, “Frontline” and Vanity Fair magazine. She wrote a memoir, “Looking for Trouble: One Woman, Six Wars and a Revolution.”

In response to the criticism, Cockburn’s campaign issued a statement from Larry Vera, an Air Force veteran who had attended the debate.

“It is clear to me that as a result of Leslie Cockburn’s boots-on-the-ground experience as a journalist covering numerous wars, she not only has a profound understanding of our military and foreign policy, she also cares deeply for the men and women who serve our country,” Vera said in the statement.

Cockburn and Riggleman are two political newcomers vying for the seat being vacated by Rep. Thomas Garrett (R-Va.), who announced in late May that he is an alcoholic and would not seek reelection, so he could focus on recovery and his family.

Virginia’s 5th District, largely rural territory stretching from wealthy Northern Virginia horse country to struggling mill towns on the North Carolina border, has been solidly Republican in previous elections.

Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the 5th District by 11 points in 2016, even as Clinton carried the state by more than five points. Amid a blue wave the next year that gave Democrat Ralph Northam a nine-point win in the governor’s race, the district favored Republican Ed Gillespie by nine points.

Given the makeup of the district, the nonpartisan Cook Political report says the race leans Republican. Cockburn, who has presented herself as part of the resistance to President Trump, hopes antipathy toward him in the district’s blue spots, including the college town of Charlottesville, can help her take the seat.

The debate was the fourth of five between the candidates.

Riggleman, who served 11 years in the Air Force and works as a Defense Department contractor, brought up his military service when one of the moderators asked whether it was in the United States’ best interest to have troops in Afghanistan.

Riggleman began by noting that 17 years had passed since he had planned the first bombing raids.

“I started mission-planning those bombing runs on October 2nd, [2001], so as a DOD guy, as somebody’s who’s been in harm’s way and somebody who’s seen others in harm’s way, I think there comes a time that we have to get out,” he said.

Because of the way the debate was structured, Cockburn was not asked to weigh in on Afghanistan. Instead, she was asked to identify the district’s “greatest economic opportunities” and say how she would capitalize on them. But she did not let the moment pass.

“First of all, I’d like to address the issue of Afghanistan,” she began. After noting that she had covered wars there and that Riggleman was on Diego Garcia, she added: “I think the person who believed he was planning those raids was General David Deptula, who was not on Diego Garcia. Also, we know from Michael O’Hanlon that those planned raids were very unsuccessful, that the bombing didn’t become successful until you had Special Forces on the ground calling in airstrikes.”

Deptula was director of the air campaign over Afghanistan in 2001, according to his biography at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in Arlington, where he serves as dean. Asked about Cockburn and Riggleman’s competing claims about who planned the raids, Deptula said it depends whether they mean devising overarching operational goals or laying out tactical details such as where and when aircraft get refueled.

“When you’re talking about planning operations, there are multiple levels of planning,” he said. “I pride myself in taking a nonpartisan perspective, and this is a perfect example. They both may be correct.”
But he objected strongly to Cockburn’s claim, which she said was based on unspecified writings by O’Hanlon, that the initial air raids were unsuccessful.

“That’s nonsense, absolute nonsense,” he said. “People should be very, very careful when they make statements like that. They don’t know the particulars of the individual mission sets. Some of the initial stages were to cut the runways to prevent any Taliban fighter aircraft from taking off. Those missions were extraordinarily successful.”

O’Hanlon is a senior foreign-policy fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert in military strategy. O’Hanlon said in an email that he was not immediately available for an interview.

Riggleman, in an interview Tuesday, said generals such as Deptula devise an “overall mission plan or campaign plan” while the specifics are handled by the mission planners such as himself.

“A general would never do mission planning for a specific squadron,” he said. “She doesn’t understand military structure.”

Riggleman also disputed the idea that the bombing raids were not successful.

“We know we hit the targets, because I got the battle damage assessment,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this report said the debate took place Tuesday. It was Monday night.