August 8, 2012 — Over the past several weeks, a series of articles have noted the absence of any discussion of the Afghanistan War in the U.S. presidential campaign. President Barack Obama might be avoiding the subject, but for better or worse, his policy is a matter of record. By contrast, GOP candidate Mitt Romney has yet to articulate an Afghanistan policy.
Of course, it shouldn’t strike anyone as curious that the Romney campaign is as reluctant to talk about Afghanistan as the Obama administration. After all, the war is terribly unpopular. The administration has apparently determined the safest thing to do politically is to chart a course toward withdrawal and otherwise pretend the United States does not still have tens of thousands of soldiers and Marines fighting a determined enemy on a daily basis. For its part, the Romney campaign has decided that criticizing the administration for not showing enough resolve in its prosecution of the war, thereby implying that Romney would prolong or increase the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan, is too politically risky. As a result, Romney has largely remained silent on the issue.
This is unfortunate, as the Romney campaign has two very smart South Asia specialists, James Shinn and Ashley Tellis, advising it, both of whom would enliven any conversation about either the war in Afghanistan or the troubled U.S.-Pakistan relationship. I, for one, would pay good money to attend a debate on the Afghanistan War between Tellis and, say, Michèle Flournoy, Obama’s former undersecretary of defense for policy who has recently participated in “proxy” debates on broader defense policy.
Such a debate is probably not going to happen, though, as both candidates understand this election is more about the economy than a war no one wants to talk about anyway. And in the absence of such a discussion, we are left to wonder how Romney’s policy and strategy with respect to Afghanistan would differ from that of the president.
Still, there is a precedent that might help us predict how a President Romney would approach Afghanistan: Obama’s approach, upon taking office, to Iraq.
Although as a presidential candidate Obama was highly critical of President George W. Bush and his Iraq policies, as president Obama largely followed the script laid out by his predecessor’s administration in the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated in 2008. Obama even retained two key Bush-era White House staffers, Doug Lute and Elissa Slotkin, who had been instrumental in steering Iraq policy in the last few years of the Bush administration. Obama also attempted, without success, to name another former Bush administration official, Brett McGurk, as U.S. ambassador to Iraq earlier this year.
In other words, as president, Romney would probably stick to the overall plan the Obama administration has established for transition in Afghanistan. There is no public appetite for U.S. infantrymen and Marines to stay in Afghanistan any longer than is absolutely necessary, making it hard for a President Romney to try to reverse the flow of troops coming out of the country, even if areas of Afghanistan fall under de facto Taliban control.
With respect to the rumored stay-behind force in Afghanistan as well as negotiations with the Taliban, we might see a few differences of degree -- if not of kind -- between a Romney administration and a second Obama administration.
It is widely assumed that a small U.S. and allied force will remain in Afghanistan after the scheduled transition of security responsibilities to Afghan forces is completed in 2014. The size and composition of this force depends entirely on what policymakers expect it to do. It seems likely this force will be asked to continue some kind of train-and-equip mission in support of the Afghan security forces, while also conducting direct action special operations against the Taliban and other groups.
Working with those missions in mind, retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Dave Barno and I recently estimated such a force would need somewhere between 25,000 and 35,000 troops. It is highly unlikely, however, that the Obama administration, if elected to a second term, will authorize a force that large. Instead it will want to keep no more than 15,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan, in which case it would do well to scale back what it wants these forces to do.
A Romney administration, by contrast, might be amenable to a much larger force, perhaps even as high as the estimates that Barno and I arrived at. The $25 billion such a force would cost is a bargain compared with the amount of money the United States has spent annually in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, and the U.S. public does not seem as opposed to the prospect of special operations forces remaining in Afghanistan as it is to general purpose forces staying in the country.
Another way that a Romney administration might differ from a second Obama administration concerns negotiating with the Taliban. After many long years in which reconciliation efforts were subordinate to military efforts to defeat the Taliban on the battlefield, it now appears as if the Obama administration has pinned its hopes on reconciliation.
Some Romney advisers, most notably Mitchell Reiss, seem to support such efforts. However, Romney himself has explicitly ruled such negotiations out.
In the end, I expect a Romney administration to bite the bullet and negotiate, while claiming that his hard-line campaign rhetoric was meant to avoid giving the Taliban an impression of weakness. He can claim, in other words, that he was merely playing hardball in the run-up to negotiations.
It’s worth asking, though, whether or not reconciliation is indeed the right course of action. Negotiating an end to the conflict sounds good in theory, and the United States should indeed be willing to talk while fighting, but several analysts with whom I have spoken worry that negotiations with the Taliban would merely split the fragile Afghan government and serve as a prelude to civil war.
That is just one of the tough decisions about the war that the next occupant of the White House will have to make. And regardless of who is elected, the seemingly intractable problems of Afghanistan are not going to go away come November. To the contrary, the next president will have to face up to the fact that even though he didn’t talk about it much during the campaign, his country remains at war.