War in Afghanistan disappears from campaign discourse
Meanwhile, the Afghan government appears to be rife with corruption and incompetence. One of the latest distressing revelations involves the Afghan finance minister, Omar Zakhilwal, who has had hundreds of thousands of dollars deposited into his bank account - often in cash - while holding positions allowing him to influence winners and losers in the Afghan economy.
In March - after a shooting rampage by a U.S. soldier who allegedly killed 16 Afghan civilians and the burning of Korans on a U.S. military base that prompted violent protests - the Obama administration said it was sticking to its timetable for the U.S. and NATO to hand security control of the country over to the Afghans by the end of 2014.
Since then we've heard little from the president on Afghanistan, outside of references in his stump speech to drawing down troops to bring the decade-long war to an end. Mitt Romney has also rarely mentioned the war, about which his views are somewhat hard to parse: He has harshly criticized Mr. Obama for setting a timetable for withdrawal while seeming to support the plan to pull most American troops out of the country by the end of 2014. (Romney said in July that he opposes plans to pull 23,000 of the 84,000 remaining U.S. troops out by October.) Romney put out a statement Thursday honoring the troops killed in a helicopter crash in Southern Afghanistan, but he has had little to say on the numerous signs that the nation may be ill-prepared for the handover set to take place in 28 months.
One reason the war has been little-discussed on the campaign trail is obvious: Americans overwhelmingly say the economy, not foreign policy, is their chief concern. Particularly in an age where the military is an all-volunteer proposition, it's easy for everyday concerns to overshadow conflicts being fought thousands of miles away.
There's little support for America's continued presence in Afghanistan among the war-weary American people. In March, CBS News polling found that just 23 percent of Americans believe the United States is doing the right thing by fighting in Afghanistan. More than two in three said the U.S. should not be involved. Nearly half wanted to move up the timetable for withdrawal; only 17 percent said troops should stay in the country for "as long as it takes."
That's part of the reason that the president, who boosted troop levels in Afghanistan after taken office, appears determined to stick to the timetable. That isn't to say he isn't hedging his bets: In April, the United States and Afghanistan forged a pact that suggests thousands of U.S. troops will remain in the country after the end of combat operations -- in order to "mentor the Afghan National Security Force," Marine Corps Maj. Gen. John Toolan told U.S. News. It appeared to be an attempt to try to provide a framework to create some stability after a handover that officials recognize is unlikely to result in a successful, independent Afghan government and military. It remains unclear, however, exactly what this residual force would look like.
Romney, meanwhile, has said that he opposes negotiating with the Taliban - despite the fact that "it's been widely accepted within the foreign policy establishment that any realistic endgame in Afghanistan will involve some kind of negotiated peace deal with our enemies in Afghanistan," according to Time's Michael Crowley.
"The right course for America is not to negotiate with the Taliban while the Taliban are killing our soldiers," Romney said in January. "The right course is to recognize that they are the enemy of the United States." This may just be bluster - an attempt to show he would be tougher than the president when it comes to foreign policy. Either way, Romney has signaled that he is at least open to continuing the war beyond 2014, despite his position that the current timetable for withdrawal is "realistic."
"Upon taking office, he will review our transition to the Afghan military by holding discussions with our commanders in the field," Romney's website says. "He will order a full interagency assessment of our military and assistance presence in Afghanistan to determine the level required to secure our gains and to train Afghan forces to the point where they can protect the sovereignty of Afghanistan from the tyranny of the Taliban. Withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan under a Romney administration will be based on conditions on the ground as assessed by our military commanders."
Barring a significant uptick in violence in Afghanistan in the next three months, neither candidate is likely to face much pressure to clarify their position. The Romney campaign has made clear it believes that its best path to victory involves a relentless focus on Mr. Obama's stewardship of the economy, while the Obama campaign's chief message is that Romney favors the rich over the middle class. That doesn't leave much room for a foreign policy discussion.
But whichever candidate wins in November, he's going to have to reckon with the fact that Afghanistan appears utterly unprepared for the planned U.S. exit.
"After eleven years, more than four-hundred billion dollars spent and two thousand Americans dead, this is what we've built: a deeply dysfunctional, predatory Afghan state that seems incapable of standing on its own--even when we're there," wrote "The Forever War" author Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker. "What happens when we're not?"
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