Cross-posted from Joshua Foust’s column for PBS’ Need To Know.
This week, a suicide bomber killed at least 25 civilians at a funeral in eastern Afghanistan. Nearly 1,200 Afghan civilians have died so far this year – a slight decrease from last year and the first drop in casualties in five years. Since the war’s inception in 2001, the number of civilian deaths range from 12,500 and 14,700, according to Costs of War. Furthermore, thousands more western troops and hundreds of billions of dollars have been lost in the war. Yet despite this enormous cost, the presidential candidates are practically silent on the war.
President Barack Obama began his term by surging several waves of troops into Afghanistan. When he came into office, there were nearly 34,000 troops there. Right after his inauguration in 2009, President Obama approved the deployment of 17,000 soldiers and Marines. At the end of 2009, he approved the much-vaunted McChrystal “surge” to begin large-scale counterinsurgency operations.
By 2011, after several troop surges, the number of troops peaked at around 100,000 – with as many contractors. Yet judging by the rhetoric on Afghanistan in this presidential election cycle, you wouldn’t know there are nearly a quarter of a million coalition personnel there.
Even with this flood of armed persons, the UN credits the drop in civilian casualties on an exceptionally harsh winter, not on any gains in security. Complicating matters further is this week’s decision to halt local police training for a month. Assaults by Afghan recruits on their western counterparts have spiked this year, with a record-breaking 42 dead from insider green-on-blue attacks. Though these Afghans are essential to current withdrawal plans, they have become so untrustworthy that the U.S. has now stopped training them.
So why isn’t this an election scandal? By Election Day, there will still be68,000 troops left in Afghanistan — almost double the number as when Obama took office — and the war strategy is not working. In hisconvention speech last week, Mitt Romney didn’t mention Afghanistan once. While there is an Afghanistan-Pakistan section on his campaignwebsite, Romney himself is virtually silent about an Afghan strategy.
For his part, President Obama has promised a heavy national security focus in the convention this week: Will he address the failures in the Afghan policy and the challenges that remain? The answer is unclear. In his recent speeches, Obama has not mentioned Afghanistan very much (though he did caution last Friday that a “tough fight” remains in Afghanistan).
The lack of attention paid by both campaigns to Afghanistan is a travesty. According to iCasualties.org, more American soldiers have died in the last three years there than in the previous seven combined. Thousands morecivilian contractors whose deaths are rarely counted have also perished.
There are understandable reasons the war in Afghanistan aren’t taking center stage. For one, both campaigns have decided this election will be about the economy. The more poignant reason, however, is that both campaigns largely agree with one other. Mitt Romney says that President Obama’s failure in Afghanistan isn’t withdrawing, but withdrawing too quickly. Romney’s position is that he’d rather have input from the generals in charge before deciding to withdraw. He does, nevertheless, broadly agree with the Obama transition plan.
For President Obama’s part, he highlights the milestones his administration has reached – such as the Strategic Partnership Agreement and his expanded targeted killing program against al Qaeda. He does not, however, acknowledge the serious challenges that have crept into the war over the last four years.
Without the vigorous debate the Afghanistan strategy demands, this war risks sliding into autopilot— a continuing saga of half-formed plans with an ill-defined end in sight. Though the Afghan war’s strategy is fundamentally flawed and suffers from a critical lack of long-termplanning — neither candidate has been willing to put forward a new approach.
Surely, both candidates owe the country more.