Journalism in the Public Interest

Where Obama and Romney Stand on The War in Afghanistan

The two candidates snipe at each other, but they’ve articulated few big differences.

U.S. Marines in Helmand province, Afganistan, July, 2011. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Adam Leyendecker)

Despite trading barbs on the campaign trail, President Obama and his challenger Mitt Romney don’t differ that much on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.

Both candidates basically endorse a 2014 withdrawal, though Romney allows that conditions on the ground could change that. Both emphasize strengthening the Afghan military and governing institutions. Of course, during Obama’s time in office violence in Afghanistan has continued, and turning over more control to the Afghan government has proven difficult. We break down what the candidates have said on some of the war’s pressing issues.

Withdrawal Date

Obama famously campaigned in 2008 on his early and vocal opposition to the war in Iraq. By contrast, he dubbed Afghanistan “the War We Need to Win” and pledged to — and did— increase troop levels in Afghanistan. At the same time, he committed to fixed withdrawal dates.

In a December 2009 speech, Obama simultaneously announced a “surge” of 30,000 soldiers and a pledge to begin the withdrawal of U.S. troops by July 2011. A year later, the administration backed away from that date, and agreed to a framework with other NATO members to turn over control to Afghan forces by 2014.

In June of last year, Obama announced he would bring home the surge troops by this summer. Romney criticized Obama for disregarding the counsel of top commanders when setting this date. The Defense Department announced late last week that the last of the 30,000 surge troops had left Afghanistan, leaving 68,000 troops still on the ground.

Despite Obama’s assertions earlier this month that “Romney doesn’t have a timetable” for withdrawal from Afghanistan, Romney does support a target withdrawal date of 2014. However, Romney has refused to set that date in stone, repeatedlysaying conditions on the ground should guide the decision. Romney said he would use his first 100 days to consult with field commanders and conduct a full interagency assessment of the transition.

The situation on the ground

Aside from a timetable for withdrawal, Obama’s other stated goals in Afghanistan have been to “deny al Qaeda a safe haven,” “reverse the Taliban’s momentum” and leave Afghanistan with its own robust security forces, trained and armed by the U.S. and its allies.

The White House has launched an aggressive campaign against Al Qaeda along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, which the administration says has killed top terrorists (and generated its own share of controversy over claims of civilian deaths and diplomatic ruptures with Pakistan). Romney has in someinterviews commended Obama for his use of drone strikes but hasn’t made a definitive statement on whether he would continue the practice or change the intensity of the drone campaign. We’ve reached out to the Romney press office for elaboration, and will update the post when we hear back from them.

Meanwhile, forces hostile to the U.S. and its allies continue to carry out lethal strikes, particularly so-called “green-on-blue attacks,” in which Afghan police and soldiers turn on their coalition counterparts. Green-on-blue attacks began to increase last year and have accounted for 14% of coalition deaths this year, according to CNN. Some blame the attacks on Taliban “double agents” among Afghan forces, while others say they are conducted by ordinary Afghans furious at civilian casualties and the prolonged U.S. presence. Either way, they’ve undermined trust between coalition troops and their Afghan partners. In the wake of recent insider attacks, the U.S. suspended training of Afghan police and NATO curtailed joint operations with the Afghans. Obama said Wednesday that the reaction to insider attacks would not change U.S. plans to leave by 2014 or America’s commitments to the Afghan government.

The Taliban continues to mount traditional attacks; last week its fighters penetrated one of the largest NATO bases in Afghanistan. The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, claimed recently that while Taliban attacks continued, they had been forced “into an increasingly smaller series of areas, districts, where we have, in many respects, contained them."

Romney hasn’t said much about the green-on-blue attacks, or how the war is going in general. According to the AP, he’s the first Republican presidential nominee since 1952 not to mention war during his convention speech — a decision he defends by pointing to a speech he made to veterans at the American Legion in Indianapolis the night before.

Turning over control to the Afghans

So assuming it all goes according to plan, what do the candidates say Afghanistan will look like after 2014? Again, the differences don’t seem drastic.

On May 1, 2012, Obama signed a strategic partnership with Afghan president Hamid Karzai, giving broad terms for the U.S. presence in Afghanistan after 2014. It includes a pledge for a decade of help for the Afghan economy and institutions, but doesn’t give dollar figures. Similarly, Romney has said the U.S. mission should be to leave Afghanistan capable of defending itself against the Taliban, “ensure that [it] will never again become a launching pad for terror,” and, as he said in a January debate, to hand “Afghanistan and its sovereignty over to a military of Afghan descent.”

Obama has been careful not to frame the American mission in Afghanistan as one of nation-building; in a speech announcing the partnership he said “our goal is not to build a country in America’s image, or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban.”

But the candidates have a significant difference: Obama, as CNN notes, has said the U.S. is pursuing “a negotiated peace” with the Taliban, accepting the possibility of its non-violent participation in Afghan affairs. Romney has insisted that he will not negotiate with the Taliban.

Though Romney has not said much on a specific plan of action, his campaign says he would work with the Afghan government to fight the narcotics trade fueling the insurgency.

Relations with Pakistan

Both candidates have signaled that Pakistan plays a crucial, but complicated role in the war in Afghanistan and the broader campaign against al Qaeda.

As Foreign Policy blogger Uri Friedman notes, U.S.-Pakistani relations have grown shaky over the last few years, though publicly, the Obama administration continues to say that the U.S. can have a relationship that “respects Pakistan’s sovereignty, but also...respects our concerns with respect to our national security.” Pakistan cut off a critical supply route to Afghanistan for 7 this year after U.S. air strikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. The covert drone war in Pakistan has also been the source of diplomatic tension and widespread resentment among the Pakistani public.

Mitchell Reiss, special adviser to the Romney campaign and former head of policy planning at the State Department, told a group of foreign journalists that a Romney administration would treat Pakistan with a “little bit more respect.” The campaign’s issue statement emphasizes his desire for a strong working relationship between the U.S., Afghanistan and Pakistan; if the U.S. shows its resolve and commitment to rid the region of the Taliban, then Pakistan should follow suit.

Romney hesitates to send American troops into Pakistan, largely due to the country’s fragile state, as he noted at a primary debate in November 2011. “We have to work with our friends in that country to get them to do some of the things we can’t do ourselves,” he said. He also said that Pakistan is “comfortable” with U.S. drone strikes.

It pains me to admit that either of these bozos have anything right, but I have to side with Obama.  Mullah Mohammed Omar (leading the Taliban in 2000) insisted that poppy farming was anti-Islamic, and brought production down to less than ten percent.  (Wikipedia confirms this, for anybody wondering.)

That drove prices up and heroin users out of the market.  Under Karzai, crop sizes have set historical records, to the point where heroin is a fairly widespread problem in most American towns.

The obvious conclusion appears to be that, not only are the Taliban not funding themselves from opium poppies, but they’re also far more effective in curbing production than we’ll ever be.  Better to work with them than Karzai, who’s both ineffective and acts contrary to our policies that he’s agreed to.

“Politics of Heroin”
Author: McCoy
CIA complicity in the global heroin trade.
You will get a better understanding of both our foreign policies and how the CIA and some of our more infamous “black” covert actions are and have been financed….....

The bottom line?  The Republicans got arrogant and projected their own morality upon Afghanistan.  They put a corrupt government - Karzai - into place and assumed that buying him and sufficient inner circle officials would yield them control…and further that, once bought, Karzai and his cadre would honor the way of the politicians of the modern American right and stay bought.

Arrogant.  The pragmatic - and strategic - solution was to stay within the boundaries of the the original mission:  Get in, get OBL, and get out, doing nothing more in the way of “building” than set up a basic HUMINT network to provide the intelligence required to target al Qaida operatives wherever they reappeared.  I.e., leave Afghanistan to the Afghan people (be they Taliban, or not) rather than attempting to program a millennia and more of religious and cultural history and practice - and the resulting way of governance - out of existence.

To repeat:  Pure arrogance on the part of the right/Republicans.  Changing an Afghanistan is beyond the capabilities of the immoral and greed-bound American right, for Afghanistan was not and is not an America where the people are bound with the golden handcuffs of economic dependency and so all the right has to do to break them is destroy their jobs and so their “American Dream”.

Same old, same old.


If you think that’s wrong, you are only listening to the rhetoric. If you watch only the actions it becomes totally obvious.

Be sure and read Chris Hedges ‘How do you take your poison?’ over on Truthdig. Pretty much sums it up.

Summed up. Obama’s Admin’s policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been so pigheadedly unsuccessful, Romney doesn’t know no how to take a stance futher to the right.

For a comedian’s take check out:

Timeline for Withdrawal? That’s what HE said.

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