2.11.2008

The Nearly Forgotten Afghan War

by Laura Snedeker

More than six years after the United States invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban, the Bush administration has begun to pay attention. But even as the situation in Afghanistan heats up, the presidential candidates remain coolly indifferent.

The Bush administration, clearly concerned about the prospect of failure in a country that it once touted as a success in the so-called “War on Terror,” has tried to place the blame on its NATO allies and on the ineffective Afghan government.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband dropped in on Afghan president Hamid Karzai last week to gauge the progress of the war and make it clear that the United States expected the Afghan government to acknowledge its responsibilities. Earlier in the week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates criticized NATO for its reluctance to send more troops into a volatile situation.

The presidential candidates remain content to ignore the issue, preferring to discuss the Iraq War or the economy, criticism of which is more common and less likely to be construed as indicating a lack of patriotism.

The Democrats paid scant attention to it in their last debate before Super Tuesday, mentioning the country by name only to criticize the Bush administration’s poor performance.

“The next president will walk into the oval office, and waiting there will be a stack of problems...a war to end in Iraq and a war to resolve in Afghanistan; an economy that is not working for the vast majority of Americans…tens of millions of people either without health insurance at all or with insurance that doesn’t amount to much….” said Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY).

Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) similarly saw fit to speak about Afghanistan as part of a larger list of challenges, including Iraq, Pakistan, Latin America, China, and war spending.

“So understand that this has undermined our security,” Obama said in reference to the Iraq War. “In the meantime, Afghanistan has slid into more chaos than existed before we went into Iraq.”

The Republicans mentioned Afghanistan only once during their last debate at the Reagan Library before Super Tuesday.

“He [George Bush] was hit by something which completely took his agenda off course, and that was the Iraq conflict and the attack of 9/11, and Afghanistan,” former Massachusetts governor (and now ex-candidate) Mitt Romney said in defense of the president.

Afghanistan does not even rate a separate spot on the campaign websites of any of the top candidates. Presumed Republican nominee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), apparently more concerned with tax cuts and the Second Amendment, only mentions Afghanistan in the context of national security; Obama and Clinton mention the situation only in relation to the Iraq War.

Afghanistan remains a peripheral campaign issue because the candidates generally agree that the war is worth fighting, but do not know how to reconcile the lack of recent progress with the unpopularity of admitting defeat. At the same time, any escalation of the war must be handled with care to avoid unflattering comparisons to the so-called “surge” in Iraq and to allay fears of a long-term commitment.

If the Democratic candidates are correct in stating that the Iraq War distracted from the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, all the more reason for them to lay out concrete plans for rebuilding Afghanistan. Victory in the War on Terror, by definition a vague, open-ended battle, is hardly a plan. Voters and Afghans alike deserve a strategy that includes an eventual withdrawal, anything less guarantees only perpetual war.

(The photo depicts troops deploying from a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan in 2005; the photo is from the Department of Defense and is in the public domain.)








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