IS THE UNITED STATES at war? You would hardly know it from the Republican campaign for president.

As best as we could find, the words “Afghanistan” and “Iraq” do not appear on the issue pages of the campaign Web sites of candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. The apparent lack of concern for this topic of vital national interest is matched only by the incoherence in positions displayed when the candidates have been questioned on the subject.

Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr., the biggest disappointment of the campaign so far, was asked by a member of the audience in Monday night’s CNN-Tea Party Express debate how he would “secure safety and protection for the women and the children of Afghanistan from the radicals.” Mr. Huntsman replied, “We don’t need 100,000 troops in Afghanistan nation-building at a time when this nation needs to be built.” In other words: Sorry, women and children of Afghanistan; you’re on your own in a Huntsman administration.

That had the value, at least, of clarity. But Mr. Huntsman, faced with a questioner who described herself as originally from Afghanistan, couldn’t even stomach his own position. “I like those days when Ronald Reagan . . .would ensure that the light of this country would shine brightly for liberty, democracy, human rights and free markets. We’re not shining like we used to shine. We need to shine again,” Mr. Huntsman babbled. “And I’m here to tell you, Sahar, when we start shining again, it’s going to help the women of Afghanistan, along with any other NGO work that can be done there and the collaborative efforts of great volunteer efforts here in the United States.” Great volunteer efforts! No doubt that will be a comfort to the reimprisoned women of Afghanistan if the Taliban returns.

Mr. Perry followed with these meandering thoughts: “Well, I agree with Governor Huntsman when we talk about, it’s time to bring our young men and women home and as soon and obviously as safely as we can. But it’s also really important for us to continue to have a presence there. And I think the entire conversation about, how do we deliver our aid to those countries, and is it best spent with 100,000 military who have the target on their back in Afghanistan, I don’t think so at this particular point in time.”

If 100,000 troops are the wrong “presence,” what’s the right presence? Does Mr. Perry believe the United States has an interest in keeping the Taliban from retaking control of Afghanistan and al-Qaeda from reestablishing bases there? If so, why does he doubt the generals’ advice that 100,000 U.S. troops are, if anything, too few, not too many? What would the right number be?

Polls may show that voters care overwhelmingly about jobs and that there is no political benefit to talking about war. But no one applying for the job of commander in chief should get by with this kind of simplistic posturing. The United States is at war. Every candidate owes voters a view on why it is not worth fighting, if it is not; or on how it can be won, if it is.