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Where Obama and Romney Stand on The War in Afghanistan

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

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.

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