Where Obama and Romney Stand on The War in Afghanistan

In News by Terrance Gavan

by Cora Currier

and Blair Hickman

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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Terrance GavanWhere Obama and Romney Stand on The War in Afghanistan