Published by The Hill, an influential Capitol Hill publication
When voters mark their ballots on November 6th, there will be 68,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. In spite of a long campaign, it’s still unclear what each candidate believes should happen with those soldiers after Election Day.
Nothing captures the ambiguity better than Tuesday’s news from the State Department about the formal opening of negotiations to extend the US troop presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014. This follows on the heels of Vice President Biden’s much-noted statements in the vice presidential debate that, “We are leaving in 2014, period.” President Obama has also been trumpeting the coming end of the war, with a partial withdrawal completed this summer. But the U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership agreement he signed this year, along with statements from the Pentagon, leave the door wide open to a large troop presence as far out as 2024.
In his recent foreign policy address, Gov. Romney tried to distinguish himself from the president on the war, but offered little proof of a real difference between them. Both candidates are keeping their options open, essentially only committing to figuring it out as they go.
After 11 years, that’s not good enough. Next week’s foreign policy debate could be voters’ last opportunity for answers before November 6. Here are two questions about the war that voters should be asking.
First, what are we waiting for? Neither candidate has publicly considered withdrawing before the end 2014. But they have also failed to offer a compelling case that another two years will strengthen US and Afghan security.
There are fewer than 150 al Qaeda operatives left in Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden has been dead for more than a year. The original rationales for military action are no longer relevant.
The main thrust of current U.S. strategy is the operation aimed at training Afghan security forces. But there has been widespread evidence of problems with that program. Nothing exemplifies this better than the huge spike in insider attacks by Afghan security forces. Just this year, more than 50 US and NATO troops have died in attacks orchestrated by insurgents infiltrating the training program. Those attacks have sent shockwaves throughout the entire operation. As U.S. General John Allen, Commander of U.S. and NATO forces, put it, “You know, we’re willing to sacrifice a lot for this campaign. But we’re not willing to be murdered for it.”
We are losing lives and spending billions to at best spin our wheels, and at worst, arm and train insurgents. The candidates need to clarify how long they plan to keep troops on the ground, and if they want more time, offer evidence that it will make a difference.
The second question we should be asking is, if there are gains to be made, are they worth the cost? In Romney’s terms, is this war worth borrowing even more from China to pay for? And the far more serious question: is this war worth dying for?
The federal government is facing looming spending cuts due to a financial crisis partially driven by more than eleven years of off-books war spending. Neither candidate has detailed how much the taxpayers will shell out for an extended military presence in Afghanistan, but we’re already looking at $88 billion for 2013. Can either candidate argue that this spending is worth it, when the $1 million it takes to keep just one soldier in Afghanistan for a year could create 14 jobs in health care or 15 in public education here at home?
In addition to the financial cost, our armed forces have been overworked and stretched thin, and we have not adequately cared for our veterans. More than 2,000 soldiers have died in Afghanistan; 1,000 were killed in the last 27 months of an eleven-year war. More than 17,000 have been wounded. The presidential candidates have flown under the radar on this issue, but the stakes continue to be great for Americans, and for Afghans. In recent surveys, 66 percent of Americans say they oppose the war, and 49 percent want it to end immediately. The presidential candidates owe us an answer as to why neither of them has made a clear commitment to making that happen.
Rainwater is executive director of Peace Action West and the Peace Education Fund.