America’s past, present, and future wars received little attention in the October 16 presidential debate at Hofstra University, with the only foreign-policy question focusing on the attack on the US mission in Benghazi. Of course, a 90-minute debate must inevitably leave out many issues, but Joshua Foust of the American Security Project nonetheless made a good point when he tweeted, “I remain amazed by the idea that 4 dead Americans in Benghazi should be a campaign issue but not 60,000 troops in Afghanistan.”
For those interested in how the election will affect those troops (the number is actually closer to 68,000), the most direct discussion actually came in the vice-presidential debate. Martha Raddatz asked what HuffPost reporter Joshua Hersh described as his “dream question”:
Now, we’ve reached the recruiting goal for Afghan forces, we’ve degraded Al Qaida. So tell me, why not leave now? What more can we really accomplish? Is it worth more American lives?
But, as Hersh also said, it’s too bad neither candidate answered. Instead, Biden and Ryan doubled down on their tickets’ positions on Afghanistan, which lead to misleading and sometimes contradictory statements from both sides. Ryan began, “We agree with the administration on their 2014 transition.” But later parts of his answer seemed to contradict that. Ryan criticized the concept of a timeline even as he endorsed it, saying, “we don’t want to broadcast to our enemies, ‘put a date on your calendar, wait us out, and then come back.’” Then he continued to vacillate even more, explaining, “we do agree with the timeline and the transition, but what we — what any administration will do in 2013 is assess the situation to see how best to complete this timeline.”
Taken together, Ryan’s statements sound like code for “we don’t agree with the 2014 timeline.” Vice-President Biden jumped at the chance to draw a sharp contrast with the Romney ticket on this point, stubbornly maintaining, “we are leaving. We are leaving in 2014. Period.” But where Ryan’s statements were contradictory, Biden’s were misleading at best, because we won’t really be leaving in 2014.
What Biden meant was that combat operations will end in 2014, and the forces directly associated with those operations will be withdrawn. But an estimated 15,000 to 25,000 U.S. and NATO troops will remain in Afghanistan in a (technically) non-military capacity for many years beyond 2014.
The Strategic Partnership Agreement, signed by President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai in May, provides for US forces to continue using Afghan military bases after 2014, “for the purposes of combating al-Qaeda and its affiliates, training the Afghan National Security forces, and other mutually determined missions to advance shared security.” Moreover, the agreement commits the United States to “seek funds, on a yearly basis,” after 2014, “to support the equipping, advising, and sustaining of the Afghan National Security Forces, so that Afghanistan can independently secure and defend itself against internal and external threats, and help ensure that terrorists never again encroach on Afghan soil and threaten Afghanistan, the region, and the world.”
Training Afghan forces, combating al-Qaeda, performing other vaguely defined security missions, and getting funds from Congress to do it all – in short, it sounds like the US role post-2014 could end up looking a lot like the US role pre-2014, just with fewer troops.
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The end of combat operations is, of course, an important shift, but U.S. troops will certainly continue to be in harm’s way, and American taxpayers will certainly continue to fund the troop presence. That’s why Biden wasn’t being fully straight with the debate audience when he flatly stated “We will leave in 2014.” In fact, just a few days after the debate, on October 16, Josh Rogin reported that the State Department and the Kabul government are set to begin negotiating the long-term presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
But Martha Raddatz actually didn’t ask about Afghanistan after 2014. She asked about what will happen before 2014, raising a question that has been on the minds of many on the left and right in recent weeks: “why not leave now?” Back in September, Nukes of Hazard reported that two ordinarily hawkish Republicans, John McCain and Bill Young, had suggested that the US should end Afghanistan operations earlier than 2014, although they later appeared to back away from that position. Lt. General David Barno of the Center for a New American Security, who commanded US forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, has also recommended an accelerated drawdown.
And on October 14, the New York Times threw in the towel, dedicating its entire editorial page to their view that it is “Time To Pack Up.” Acknowledging that this was a change of opinion for the Times, the article argued that the high costs can no longer be said to justify our meager, transient gains:
Some experts say a secure withdrawal would take at least six months, and possibly a year. But one year is a huge improvement over two. It would be one less year of having soldiers die or come home with wounds that are terrifying.
The call for an accelerated drawdown has been relatively muted so far, except from a few members of Congress, but the Times’ about-face lends legitimacy to the argument, and will certainly make more Americans ask the question that Raddatz asked the vice-presidential candidates.
And of course, we all know which two people should be on the receiving end of that question. Afghanistan is, indeed, on the list of topics for the October 22nd foreign-policy debate. Obama and Romney may not be asked, as Biden and Ryan were, to explain why we should stay until 2014 (and if they are, they may sidestep the question). Regardless, this is a question that deserves to be debated far more than it has been, and the candidates’ answers will certainly shed light on how they hope to end – or extend – America’s longest war.