Reasons behind Obama and Romney's silence over Afghanistan

US Navy/Lt. j.g. Matthew Stroup

U.S. Army Spc. Joe Sullivan provides security during a key leader engagement at a hospital in Farah City in Afghanistan's Farah province, Oct. 30, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • In the 2012 election cycle, Afghanistan has become the “forgotten war” once again.

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  • Why has Afghanistan, the longest war in American history, gone mostly unmentioned in the presidential race?

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  • Foreign policy has taken a back seat in #election2012. American voters are more concerned about economic recovery.

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  • The candidates’ silence over Afghanistan does not mean the mission there has become irrelevant to the US.

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Note: This is a translation of the original article published in Farsi language on the BBC Persian website.

During his 2008 election campaign and after entering the Oval Office, President Barack Obama pledged to end the “war of choice” in Iraq and to refocus on the “war of necessity” against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the next two years, his administration tripled the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and intensified drone strikes inside Pakistan’s tribal areas.

In the 2012 election cycle, however, Afghanistan has become the “forgotten war” once again.  Both President Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney have largely avoided any substantive discussion on Afghanistan in the campaign trail and televised debates. At his nomination speech, Mitt Romney avoided any mention of Afghanistan. And at the Democratic Convention, President Obama only talked about his exit strategy. In the exclusive foreign policy debate on October 22, the two candidates did not offer specifics of their Afghanistan strategy and dodged the moderator’s question: “… what do you do if the deadline arrives and it is obvious the Afghans are unable to handle their security?  Do we still leave?”    
Why has Afghanistan, the longest war in American history, gone mostly unmentioned in the presidential race? There are three principal reasons:

"The American voters are more concerned about economic recovery, unemployment, taxes, health care and the soaring $14 trillion national debt than the Taliban insurgency and suicide bombings in Afghan villages." -Ahmad MajidyarFirst, this year’s U.S. election is predominantly about the economy. Foreign policy has taken a back seat. The American voters are more concerned about economic recovery, unemployment, taxes, health care and the soaring $14 trillion national debt than the Taliban insurgency and suicide bombings in Afghan villages.
Second, the two candidates have little divergence on the Afghanistan policy. They both agree in principle to transition security to the Afghan forces by the end of 2014, but continue to help Afghanistan militarily and financially after then.

Third, Afghanistan is no longer the “good war” and public support for the war has reached its nadir. Recent opinion polls show nearly two-thirds of Americans now say the war in Afghanistan is no longer worth fighting. The war has cost American taxpayers about $500 billion so far. In October, the conflict hit its tragic landmark as the 2,000th American soldier died in combat, and there are still 68,000 American troops in the country. Most disturbingly, there is no clear victory in sight. Moreover, after a decade of military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, many Americans now prefer to fight foreign enemies through counterterrorist tactics such as drone attacks to large-scale military involvement in distant countries like Afghanistan.

It is, therefore, not politically expedient for the candidates to elaborate on their Afghanistan strategy and pledge long-term commitment to the country during the election season. 

However, the candidates’ silence over Afghanistan does not mean the mission there has become irrelevant to the United States. There is still much at stake in Afghanistan. The United States has two vital interests in the Af-Pak region. The first one is to create sufficient stability in Afghanistan and strengthen the country’s institutions, primarily its security forces, so that al Qaeda and the Taliban cannot return to parts of Afghanistan and plot against the United States and its allies after foreign troops’ departure. The second one is to ensure the stability of Pakistan so that the country’s nuclear weapons do not fall into the hands of al Qaeda and its local affiliates. Washington is unlikely to disengage from the region until these two key goals are achieved.  The consequence of abandoning Afghanistan after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal proved to be catastrophic for the United States and the world.

Nor does the candidates’ silence make the Afghan war end. Whoever is in the White House next year will have to dedicate a considerable amount of time and energy to responsibly wind down the Afghan war, without compromising the U.S. national security. 

Indeed, the Afghan mission has faced serious setbacks recently. The Taliban has stepped up violence and is readying for a comeback as foreign troops are leaving. Afghan officials say al Qaeda and the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban have reestablished bases in remote areas of eastern Nuristan and Kunar provinces vacated by U.S. troops in 2010. Moreover, the alarming rise in green-on-blue attacks – in which Afghan security forces have turned their guns on coalition partners – has eroded morale and trust between the Afghan forces and their foreign mentors and brought restrictions to joint military operations. The deficit of trust has called into question the most essential pillar of the U.S. exit strategy, which is to train and build a capable and credible Afghan security force that can police the country’s borders and prevent the return of the Taliban and al Qaeda in future.

The next president will have to confront these daunting challenges.

But while we will not know the details of the next president’s Afghanistan plan until after the election, Washington and Kabul have already taken practical steps to forge an enduring relationship beyond the 2014 timeline. In May this year, Presidents Obama and Hamid Karzai signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement, which laid out the broader principles of U.S.-Afghan relationship for the next decade. On October 3, the two countries began work on the specifics of the agreement which will outline U.S. long-term assistance to Afghanistan beyond 2014, primarily in the spheres of security, governance, economic development, regional cooperation, and human rights and democracy. The agreement will also allow Washington to keep a residual force of thousands of trainers and Special Forces personnel to continue training and partnering with the Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism operations along the Afghan-Pakistani border beyond 2014. Governor Romney has also indicated that he is committed to the post-2014 engagement in Afghanistan.

Success in Afghanistan is attainable. But the next American president needs to pursue a strategy which focuses more on consolidating and sustaining the gains of the past decade than just ending the war and withdrawing troops.

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