With the war so unpopular and the U.S. facing such unappealing options, it's little wonder neither candidate has discussed it much. Does that mean we're stuck with the status quo?
This week marks two watershed events in the war in Afghanistan: suspending the police training mission and firing hundreds of Afghan soldiers for having ties to the insurgency. Both speak to the increasingly struggling U.S.-led war effort there. And yet the two presidential campaigns are barely discussing one of the toughest foreign policy issues facing the U.S. today. That's hardly surprising in political terms, but in actual policy terms it seems to have left the U.S. in a state of cautious status quo.
The next 28 months of the war in Afghanistan, between now and the planned drawdown, will be defined in part by the process of handing over security responsibility from ISAF (the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force) troops to Afghan soldiers and police. Without a successful transition to Afghan control, the strategy is likely to fall apart, leaving the country without security.
Obama's Afghanistan campaign, which began with a 2009 "surge" of tens of thousands of troops, has faced a number of setbacks, as cataloged in Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran's recent book. Troops went to some of the most troubled provinces, such as Helmand, with big goals and a hope that they might reproduce the counterinsurgency results in Iraq of a few years earlier. But violence increased, thought it has tapered off this year as troops began to withdraw.
Proponents of the 2007 surge in Iraq argue that it provided political space for the Iraqi government to reconcile disputes and garner some public trust, but this does not appear to have happened in Afghanistan. Official corruption remains pervasive, and public trust appears low.
Obama's goals for the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan are significant: he wants the country free of al Qaeda, the Taliban out of power, and the Afghan security services able to handle the country's internal security on their own. Those are great goals but lofty ones that, by definition, are not so much permanently achieved as they are managed day-to-day. Perhaps that's why the mission to train Afghan security forces, which will continue once combat operations officially end in 2014, is scheduled to continue until 2024. That would make for 23 years of constant U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. That's modest compared to the tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in Japan, South Korea, and Germany since the 1940s, but a reminder of the scope of the Afghanistan undertaking.
As an example of the challenge in building self-sustaining Afghan security, see Jalalabad, a city in the country's east and the capital of Nangarhar Province. Last January, the U.S. transferred security responsibility for the city to Afghan control. On Tuesday, a suicide bomber struck a funeral, killing 25 civilians and injuring several provincial officials. One attack doesn't prove that U.S. strategy is failing of course, but Jalalabad is, unfortunately, not the only example. Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, was transferred over to Afghan control from the British military last year. A string of bombs since then suggests that security has not been achieved.
Still, you'd be hard pressed to find either presidential campaign saying much of substance about the war. Mitt Romney didn't mention it during his lengthy speech accepting his nomination at the Republican National Convention, and the Obama campaign seems to have largely driven home his plan to draw down the number of troops. In his speech to the Democratic National Convention last night, Obama seemed to talk about the war almost as if it were resolved. "We've blunted the Taliban's momentum in Afghanistan and in 2014, our longest war will be over," he said. "My opponent said that it was tragic to end the war in Iraq. And he won't tell us how he'll end the war in Afghanistan. Well, I have, and I will." Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Jon Kerry hit similar notes. "He promised to end the war in Afghanistan responsibly, and he is, and our heroes there are coming home," Kerry said.