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The great silence: Afghanistan in the presidential campaigns

By Andrew J. Polsky

From time to time, political commentators bemoan the fact that we don’t debate the war in Afghanistan in our political campaigns. Back in 2010, Tom Brokaw complained that in the heated mid-term elections neither party showed any interest in arguing about the best course to pursue in the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. He chalked this up to the fact that most Americans could opt out of military service, so the wars touched few families. In a recent column, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who has written provocative books about both wars, laments the silence on Afghanistan from both the Obama and Romney campaigns. With almost 80,000 troops in Afghanistan and a cost to taxpayers this year of almost $100 billion, he insists, Americans need to weigh the implications of our ongoing commitment to the Afghan government. He finds the candidates’ vague words on the pace of the drawdown of American troops disturbing. Similarly, Jackson Diehl points to the deaths of 46 US and coalition troops in July as an ominous sign of Taliban revival. Yet, despite the fact that important decisions are pending on the future role of the United States in the conflict, Diehl objects that “this may be the first presidential campaign in US history in which an ongoing war fails to produce a significant debate.”

US Marines listen to a briefing before beginning a security patrol along the Helmand River near Combat Outpost Ouellette, Helmand province, Afganistan, March 3, 2011. The Marines are with 1st Platoon, Lima Company, Battalion Landing Team, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 8, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit. (US Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Jesse J. Johnson/Released). Source: Department of Defense.
Odd though it may be in historical terms, there are good political reasons for the campaigns to eschew a discussion of Afghanistan. The war represents a no-win issue. Neither candidate stands to gain votes by dwelling on his position. (And, for that matter, it isn’t clear what Romney’s stance is, as I’ve noted.) Indeed, to speak about war could easily cost Obama or Romney votes.

The president has a two-fold campaign strategy that calls for appealing to centrist voters while mobilizing the Democratic base. That base has been conspicuously unenthusiastic about the Afghanistan conflict from the moment Obama assumed office. His conduct of antiterrorist operations, especially drone attacks, has provoked criticism from the political left. Liberals want to see the United States exit Afghanistan as quickly as possible, an important element in reducing defense outlays. Although other voters don’t share the left’s antipathy for the conflict, they also show no enthusiasm for it. Silence is the prudent political course.

For Romney, the political math isn’t significantly different. He, too, needs to stir his party base while winning independent voters. Polls reveal that even Republicans have lost their taste for the war. Certainly this isn’t an issue on which to mobilize die-hard conservatives, an ongoing problem for his campaign. Romney has made occasional noises about listening to the generals in the field before withdrawing combat troops. That may sound like a “tough” commander in chief, but the two-thirds of independent voters who disapprove of the war won’t be impressed. Here, too, saying nothing is the prudent political course.

Possibly during the presidential debates this fall, one of which is reserved for foreign policy, the candidates will be pressed on their Afghanistan policies. If so, alas, I would expect nothing more than a reiteration of the general statements they’ve made to date. Obama will praise the progress made on the ground and speak of “transitioning out” of a combat role by 2014, while Romney will insist that Obama made a mistake by revealing to the Taliban the American withdrawal schedule when he first decided on a surge. None of this will shed much light on the future.

But politics aside, there is another reason why we’re not debating Afghanistan in this campaign. The actual policy space remaining for the United States, whoever is in the Oval Office come Inauguration Day 2013, is very limited. American troops will be coming home over the next two years. Whether the pace is the one Obama prefers or the slightly slower rate that some field commanders might like to see, the difference to the long-term future of Afghanistan will be insignificant. The Afghan Army and police may not be able to stand on their own — there are serious doubts — but either way American troops won’t stay or return.

Likewise, the president has committed the United States to a long-term security partnership with the Kabul government that would cost the United States $4 billion per year for a decade. That is a large sum of money, in an era when Congress will be looking to cut expenditures. But it is a lot less than the war itself has been costing. Moreover, neither party would want to be saddled with responsibility for a repetition of the collapse of the Saigon government in 1975, which could be a political liability down the road. The money would serve as a kind of political insurance policy.

No political upside, very few policy options — it isn’t hard to see why the candidates continue to shun Afghanistan in their campaigns. The American people want to see the war ended, but don’t want a collapse of the Kabul government to follow. Although a “Who lost Afghanistan?” debate wouldn’t have much political traction, neither party would want the blame. The war will grind on, drawing the occasional headline, the cost borne by troops and their families, in political silence.

Andrew Polsky is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. A former editor of the journal Polity, his most recent book is Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War. Read Andrew Polsky’s previous blog posts.

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Recent Comments

  1. Carol Cowans

    Thank you for spelling out the lack of debate on the war. Since I have a son deployed to Afghanistan, along with many fine young people, I have been frustrated by the silence. How can the politicians sleep at night knowing that they have committed troops to a losing battle where we are just “marking time” until we can make a somewhat graceful exiit? It makes little difference who occupies the White House since the governing elite has no concern for the faceless people who fight and die in these wars. It’s a sad fact.

  2. […] want the two candidates to address the future course of Afghanistan policy before Election Day, they are unlikely to do so. I expect the subject to be raised in the upcoming presidential debates, of course. But President […]

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