Early last week, the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan stepped on to the stage in the battleground state of New Hampshire to address supporters and persuade those undecided to back him in November. The scenery of the event was as typical as it gets in the heart of a heated presidential race: supporters clapped their hands and cheered while Romney criticized the incumbent, Barack Obama, for his poor economic record and lackluster leadership skills. But the entire campaign event seemed to change in an instant when an older men, presumably a veteran, asked a pointed and direct question about an issue neither candidate has talked about a lot during the campaign.
The voter wasn’t concerned about job growth nor Romney’s plans to reform health care for American seniors. Rather, it was about the bad news that has been coming out of Afghanistan during the past two months. Nearly a dozen American soldiers have recently been killed by their Afghan counterparts and countless more in a combination of roadside attacks with improved explosive devices, helicopter malfunctions and suicide bombings.
I want to know what you guys are going to do about Afghanistan. We’ve got those characters over there shooting our guys and our guys are coming home in body bags. So when you guys take over in Washington, what are you going to do about this damn mess in Afghanistan?
It is a question that both Romney and Ryan were perhaps surprised to get. In a way, their surprise was understandable. Neither the president nor Mitt Romney has discussed the Afghan war, now the longest in American history, in any concrete and detailed way since the beginning of the election season.
Part of the reason is undeniably a sense in the United States that the war is winding down. American and NATO forces are scheduled to withdraw by the end of 2014. Two thirds of the American electorate is tired of the war effort and would rather the conflict were wrapped up as soon as possible. With every American death or injury from a roadside bomb or “insider attack,” the ranks of those who still support the mission shrink further.
Both campaigns appear to have calculated that addressing an issue that is only going to cause them more trouble in the future is far from smart politics. Moreover, even as they criticize each other on national security, the president and Mitt Romney have roughly the same policy on the war. Both are holding to the 2014 withdrawal date.
However, domestic politics may only be one factor in the absence of any real debate about the war. The other is the notion that Afghanistan is still mired in a deadly cycle of violence and suffering from many of the same problems as it did when American involvement in the conflict began nearly twelve years ago.
Looking at Afghanistan today, it is difficult to see the positives. A growing number of Afghan soldiers and police officers, the very people who will be thrust into defending the country from the Taliban in two years’ time, are increasingly irritated at their American guests. Ten American soldiers have been killed by disgruntled Afghans in uniform, a problem that has become so concerning that America’s top military officer, General Martin E. Dempsey, visited the country to speak with his commanders about how to protect the troops against a similar wave.
Afghans are dying at an alarming rate from attacks by insurgents who continue to use the most indiscriminate of tactics to kill their enemies. Afghanistan’s finance minister is under suspicion of corruption. The defense and interior ministers were just last week let go after a confidence vote was called in parliament.
There is reason for optimism. More Afghan girls are going to school than at any time in the country’s modern history. The Afghan economy is benefiting from investment, both American and Chinese. The power of the legislature is starting to expand, which is a welcome development after years of being neutered or seen catering to President Hamid Karzai.
But neither side of the conflict is part of the political debate in the United States. In an election where a single gaffe could potentially alter the race, Obama and Romney are keen to stay away from a war that is now widely opposed at home.
In the meantime, close to 70,000 troops will remain in the Central Asian country for another two years. The candidates don’t want to discuss it but the future of Afghanistan is nowhere near certain. Once foreign military forces pull out, the gains of the past twelve years will be sorely tested.