by Cora Currier and Blair Hickman, 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.
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.