Afghanistan: Where both candidates agree

For all of their campaign sniping, Obama's and Romney's withdrawal plans in Afghanistan are virtually identical

Topics: Afghanistan, Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, ProPublica, 2012 Elections,

Afghanistan: Where both candidates agreeAn Afghan family walks past a U.S. Army soldier in the town of Senjaray. (Credit: AP/Shamil Zhumatov)
This originally appeared on ProPublica.  

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, repeatedly saying 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 some interviews, 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.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>