Politicians and pundits who argue that it is easy to “end” wars and bring the troops home aren’t being straight with voters. Before Tuesday, it seemed that South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg understood this. In a June speech, he said that “with proper legal authorities, we should maintain limited, focused and specialized counterterrorism and intelligence missions in places like Afghanistan.” Likewise, in a response to questions from the Council on Foreign Relations, Buttigieg argued, “A negotiated peace agreement in which we maintain a relevant Special Operations/intelligence presence but bring home our ground troops is the best way to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a base for terrorist attacks against the United States or its allies. Using our current presence to help lock in a peace agreement should be part of that strategy.”

These were more nuanced answers than what he said during the first night of the second Democratic debate:

BUTTIGIEG: We will withdraw. We have to.
TAPPER: In your first year?
BUTTIGIEG: Yes. Look, around the world, we will do whatever it takes to keep America safe. But I thought I was one of the last troops leaving Afghanistan when I thought I was turning out the lights years ago.

(A spokesperson did not respond to an inquiry about the discrepancy in his debate answer.)

There is a real question about whether a small counterterrorism force is sustainable and effective (and how many additional forces would be needed to support such a contingent). Responsible candidates should be discussing whether some combination of diplomacy and ongoing nonmilitary assistance can ensure stability if we remove all forces. In a new report, Kelly Magsamen and Michael Fuchs of the Center for American Progress argue:

One challenge with U.S. policy in Afghanistan is that there is no convincing theory of victory—no matter what strategy the United States pursues, there is no guarantee that the United States can turn Afghanistan into a secure, well-governed democracy in the foreseeable future. And for many policymakers across administrations, the unknown risks of leaving have always outweighed the known risks of staying—and to stay requires a disproportionate burden on the U.S. military. It is time for a thorough evaluation of those risks and the assumptions that undergird them. And while the situations are not the same, the experience with the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 and the subsequent rise of the Islamic State have made policymakers even more risk averse with respect to withdrawal from Afghanistan in recent years.

To formulate a responsible policy will mean being honest about the current situation (e.g., we are at a stalemate) and the risks of leaving (we will lose intelligence-gathering, risk a resurgence of terrorist groups, possibly provoke a collapse of the Afghan government) as well as explaining the downsides of staying (e.g., focus and resources are best spent elsewhere, we are hurting military readiness for other purposes).

The authors’ suggestion that we “simultaneously pursue an over-the-horizon rapid-reaction military capability to ensure that forces could be quickly deployed in the case of an urgent threat to U.S. diplomatic personnel or the Afghan government” should be pursued, as should enhanced regional support for the Afghan government. (However, I am less sanguine than the authors about delinking our military withdrawal from progress in negotiations with the Taliban, nor do I think a reduced troop presence in Afghanistan (total forces went down to 8,400 under President Barack Obama) should be ruled out.

Afghanistan policy should be part of an overall policy vision. Writing about Yemen last year, Brian Katulis and Lawrence J. Korb argued that ending wars “will require a set of investments in diplomacy, economic statecraft tools, and a long-term strategy for the broader Middle East that has been missing in action long before Donald Trump came to office.” If Democrats want to advocate a different strategy in Afghanistan, they need to explain how that benefits our overall security; if they want to curtail the defense budget, they had better explain how they expect our forces to do more with less.

For purposes of the campaign, Democratic candidates should focus on widely popular objectives — maintaining vigilance against terrorism, countering economic and cyber-aggression by China, protecting our democracy from foreign sabotage and developing sane approaches to the worldwide refugee and climate change crises — but also create an effective response to counter President Trump’s counterproductive yet catchy message (“America First”). “America Best” — the responsible defender against international threats, the glue to hold critical alliances together, the leader on necessary transnational deal-making (on cyberthreats, climate change, nuclear proliferation, etc.) and the confident democracy able to resist toadying to dictators — might hold promise. In this regard, Democrats need more Teddy Roosevelt (speak softly but carry a big stick) and less rhetoric that sounds like a left-wing brand of retrenchment.

To paraphrase Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Democrats shouldn’t go “to all the trouble of running for president of the United States” to talk about what America won’t do in the world. Instead, they should spend more time explaining about how a saner, smarter and steadier commander in chief could make us safer and more prosperous. That has to amount to more than simply bugging out of Afghanistan.

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