It’s not surprising that an isolated incident in Benghazi, Libya, took up a significant chunk of the 2nd Presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, while the war in Afghanistan, now in its twelfth year, was ignored. It shouldn’t have been, but although the war is mostly lost, it is even more important to dissect the reasons for that failure, in detail, and it’s a tragedy that American voters aren’t demanding that the political class be held accountable for it.
Since 2009 polls show that Americans have turned sharply against the war, with two-thirds to three-fourths of respondents opining that war isn’t worth fighting. Although the war has long been considered unwinnable by many foreign policy experts, American voters now seem to have reached the same conclusion. President Obama’s decision to wind down the war by next year, and to withdraw all U.S. forces in 2014, isn’t controversial. But 2,000 Americans, and tens of thousands of Afghans, are dead – yet that war-battered country is arguably no closer to peace and stability than it was at the end of 2001, weeks after the U.S. invasion.
In the past, Romney has expressed some important differences with the president on Afghanistan. He’s said that he’d never talk to or negotiate with the Taliban, and he’s criticized Obama for drawing down too quickly the 30,000-plus troops that were deployed in the 2009 “surge” that Obama ordered. During the Republican primary season, Romney said repeatedly that he’d reconsider withdrawing U.S. forces depending on conditions on the ground, and on the advice of the generals.
But, lately, Romney has pretty much thrown in the towel, declaring his support for the president’s timetable. And when, in the vice presidential debate last week, Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, halfheartedly tried to revive the conditions-on-the-ground argument, Vice President Joe Biden slammed the door. “[W]e are leaving,” said Biden. “We are leaving in 2014. Period. And in the process, we’re going to be saving over the next 10 years another $800 billion. We’ve been in this war for over a decade. The primary objective is almost completed. Now, all we’re doing is putting the Kabul government in a position to be able to maintain their own security. It’s their responsibility, not America’s.”
In stunning, lengthy editorial entitled “Time to Pack Up” on October 13, the New York Times reversed its long-held, stay-the-course view on Afghanistan. “Americans are desperate to see the war end and the 68,000 remaining troops come home,” said the editors. The editorial began with a ringing declaration of failure:
“After more than a decade of having American blood spilled in Afghanistan, with nearly six years lost to President George W. Bush’s disastrous indifference, it is time for United States forces to leave Afghanistan on a schedule dictated only by the security of the troops. It should not take more than a year. The United States will not achieve even President Obama’s narrowing goals, and prolonging the war will only do more harm.”
And the Times concluded: “We are not arguing that everything will work out well after the United States leaves Afghanistan. It will not. The Taliban will take over parts of the Pashtun south, where they will brutalize women and trample their rights. Warlords will go on stealing. Afghanistan will still be the world’s second-poorest country.”
That’s in line with several recent analyses by people with vast experience in Afghanistan. Most surprising was a bleak forecast from Reto Stocker, the outgoing chief of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who’d spent seven long years there. The ICRC, which focuses on humanitarian relief and civilian protection, rarely comments in public about its thinking. Still, Stocker said that, despite the efforts of the U.S./NATO coalition, the end of the war “is not in sight,” adding: “I am filled with concern as I leave this country. Since I arrived here in 2005, local armed groups have proliferated, civilians have been caught between not just one but multiple front lines, and it has become increasingly difficult for ordinary Afghans to obtain health care. People are not just suffering the effects of the armed conflict. Hardship arising from the economic situation, or from severe weather or natural disaster, has become more widespread, and hope for the future has been steadily declining.”
Even bleaker was the most recent report from the International Crisis Group, a nonpartisan body that has been involved in Afghanistan from the start. It concluded that Afghanistan is utterly unable to provide for its own security when the international forces leave. “Plagued by factionalism and corruption, Afghanistan is far from ready to assume responsibility for security when U.S. and NATO forces withdraw in 2014,” the ICG said in its report. And it emphasized that the corrupt and mismanaged tangle of politics, elections and courts is so bad that the scheduled 2014 presidential election is almost guaranteed to be plagued with widespread fraud, vote-rigging, and violence that it will either be postponed or held under a “state of emergency.”
The next Obama-Romney debate will be held on Monday, and it is supposed to focus on foreign policy and national security. Questions framed around the arguments in the Times editorial, the ICRC’s comments, and the ICG report might elicit useful responses from both candidates. But don’t expect serious discussion and debate. As in Iraq, where President Obama closed the door on a horrific mess created by his predecessor without seeking to hold the administration of George W. Bush accountable, in Afghanistan too the president seems willing to declare victory – that is, the killing of Osama bin Laden – and come home. And while Romney may make a mention or two of the fact that the Taliban isn’t going away, neither candidate should be expected to answer the hard questions left over from America’s longest war.
Those questions include both tactical and strategic ones. The tactical ones are: Since the United States is leaving, what are your thoughts about how to assemble a rebalanced Afghan government that includes all elements of society, including the insurgents? What can we do about Pakistan, which continues to harbor, support and encourage the Taliban and its allies, including the Haqqani group and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s organization? And what steps will you take to bring Russia, China and Iran to an agreement with the United States and Pakistan to reduce political conflict among their allies in Afghanistan?
The strategic ones, however, are more troubling: What have we learned about America’s ability to engage in counterinsurgency and nation-building in countries like Afghanistan? What does America’s failure in Afghanistan say about its ability to take action in countries as diverse as Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, Syria, and Iran? If you claim that the United States is “exceptional,” and that American “exceptionalism” still prevails, are you deterred by our exceptional failure in twelve years of war in Afghanistan?