There are still almost 80,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and each month brings a few dozen home in coffins — more than 2,000 since 2001. Hundreds more arrive on medical evacuation flights, many of them without a limb. The war will cost taxpayers more than $100 billion this year. The Taliban, which enjoys sanctuary in nuclear-armed Pakistan, continues to conduct devastating attacks on the Afghan government and the civilian population.
But you wouldn’t know any of it from listening to President Obama and Mitt Romney on the campaign trail. They may not agree on much, but when it comes to the decade-old conflict, they have adopted the same strategy on the stump: Say as little as possible — sometimes not a word — and quickly change the subject.
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.”
Presenting the case that the surge worked in a few provinces doesn’t make for a rousing victory speech. It is even more difficult when the Taliban continues to attack, sometimes spectacularly, and the Afghan government remains inept and corrupt.
Casting the Taliban as a critical security threat to the United States poses its own challenges for the president. He has long maintained that his principal reason for the surge was to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But Osama bin Laden, who had been hiding in Pakistan, is now dead — the result of a daring mission for which Obama can claim credit — complicating the case for continued large-scale operations in Afghanistan.
Romney’s principal line of attack is that the president rejected a recommendation from the former top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, to wait until the end of this year to bring home all the surge troops. Instead, Obama ordered them out of Afghanistan by the end of September.
“I have been critical of the president’s decision to withdraw the surge troops during the fighting season, against the advice of the commanders on the ground,” Romney told the Veterans of Foreign Wars last month. “President Obama would have you believe that anyone who disagrees with his decisions is arguing for endless war. But the route to more war — and to potential attacks here at home — is a politically timed retreat.”
Those remarks were Romney’s most detailed public statement on the war since becoming the presumptive GOP presidential nominee. But making a repeated case for a delayed drawdown has potential peril for him: Recent polls, including one conducted in April by The Washington Post and ABC News, show that a narrow majority of Republicans now think the war in Afghanistan is no longer worth fighting. Among independents — to whom Romney must appeal — disapproval of the war jumps to 66 percent. No surprise that when Romney went overseas last month, he stopped in London, Jerusalem and Warsaw, not Kabul.
The candidates’ relative silence on the war contrasts with the other two presidential elections since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. When he campaigned in 2008, Obama had no reservations about addressing Afghanistan. It was, he said repeatedly, “a war we must win.” His Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, was unafraid to remind voters about his support for the troop surge in Iraq, even though much of the public had soured on the war there.
In 2004, President George W. Bush did not shy from talking about Iraq despite public support for the mission falling below 50 percent that summer.
If Obama and Romney spent more time discussing the war in Afghanistan, what would voters learn? Both of them have said they want to transition responsibility for the country’s security to Afghan forces by the end of 2014 — a deadline agreed upon by NATO allies — but they have been vague about how many troops they would withdraw next year. (By Election Day, there will be about 68,000 uniformed U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan.) Both say they would consider conditions on the ground and listen to the advice of commanders.
But what are their gut feelings? Does Romney plan to suspend further troop reductions next year, as some Republican lawmakers have urged? When Obama said this year that he wants to “effectuate this transition in a way that doesn’t result in a steep cliff at the end of 2014,” did he foreshadow an intention to order significant drawdowns next year?
There is an even more important reason that both men should be talking about Afghanistan: The war is not going away anytime soon. It will continue for the first half of the next presidential term. Then the situation gets even more complicated. The Pentagon will probably want to keep some troops there to conduct counterterrorism missions and continue training the Afghan army. And the Afghan government is going to need substantial U.S. financial support to sustain its security forces, run its ministries and provide basic services to its people.
That could cost as much as $4 billion a year, by some estimates. Given the size of the tab — about $1 billionmore than we provided last year to Israel, the next-largest recipient of U.S. assistance — whoever resides in the White House next year will need to make the case to Congress and the American people about the importance of supporting Afghanistan.
This is the time to begin laying that groundwork. If voters in both parties do not start hearing about the need to help the Afghans once our troops leave, it will be much harder for the winner to generate the political consensus to secure the funding, especially during a time of domestic economic crisis.
It sounds expensive, but it is far cheaper than $100 billion a year. If some of the gains in security and governance that have resulted from the surge are to be sustained, and if the United States wants to decrease the chances of Afghanistan slipping into another civil war, it will have to keep writing checks to Kabul.
Both camps should remember the lesson of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. The communist government in Kabul did not collapse overnight. It fell in 1992, after the Soviet Union collapsed and Moscow stopped bankrolling President Najibullah.
American officers and enlisted personnel across Afghanistan have told me that they yearn for a meaningful conversation back home about the war, a discussion they would far prefer over obligatory remarks thanking them for their service.
Although he skipped Afghanistan on his foreign trip, Romney still could deliver a speech that addresses the war in a more substantive way.
For Obama, a golden opportunity awaits in September. He has awarded the Presidential Unit Citation — the highest military honor that can be bestowed upon a group of troops — to the Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan, one of the first units to deploy to Afghanistan under his signature in 2009. The 10,000-strong brigade engaged in pitched fighting as it sought to push insurgents out of the Helmand River Valley, suffering 90 fatalities.
The White House has not told the Marine Corps whether the president will travel to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to present the award in person. Several Marine officers who served in the brigade are hoping he will make the short trip from Washington.
“The least these Marines are owed is an in-person thank you,” said John Kael Weston, a former State Department officer who served as the brigade’s political adviser. “It’s the right thing to do.”
By awarding the citation himself, Obama “will remind the nation that there’s still a war going on,” Weston said. “He needs to do that, even if he rightly wants to end this war.”
After serving for seven years in Iraq and Afghanistan — more consecutive time in those combat zones than any other U.S. diplomat — Weston has joined the ranks of those who believe this war needs to end.
“But it needs to end in a responsible way,” he said. “You don’t end a war by encouraging the American people to ignore it.”
Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a senior correspondent and associate editor at The Washington Post, is the author of “Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan.”
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