Republican candidates understandably are reluctant to talk about the war in Afghanistan. With unemployment remaining above 8 percent and growth uncertain, Americans are focused on the economy. The killing of Osama bin Laden and other tactical successes in the war on terror have created the impression that foreign policy is President Obama’s strong suit. Support for the war continues to plummet as a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in March found that 69 percent of respondents thought the United States should not be at war in Afghanistan.
But it would be a mistake for Republicans to avoid talking about the war in which 90,000 U.S. service members continue to risk their lives. Instead, Republicans can demonstrate that they would be better stewards of U.S. national security by stressing five key points about Afghanistan:
1. Americans have important interests at stake: Mr. Obama has been negligent as a war leader in explaining why Americans are fighting and dying in Afghanistan. With few exceptions, however, Republicans have also failed to articulate why victory matters in Afghanistan. We are not fighting there solely to defeat al Qaeda, nor to create a perfect democracy. Rather, our goals are both broader and more limited. Before Sept. 11, 2011, Afghanistan hosted not only al Qaeda, but an array of terrorist groups targeting America and its allies. Files seized from bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound demonstrate that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar continues to support these groups. Although Afghanistan may never attain Western standards of good governance, a failed state would again offer a sanctuary for organizations such as the elements of the Pakistani Taliban responsible for the unsuccessful May 2010 Times Square bombing. Whereas Mr. Obama suggests the threat from Afghanistan will end with the withdrawal of U.S. troops, by clearly outlining the broader stakes Republicans can expose how dangerously narrow his strategic vision is.
Americans should also be reminded of what life in Afghanistan will look like if we prioritize withdrawal over victory. There is a real war on women being waged in Afghanistan, as the Taliban continue to close schools and conduct vicious attacks on schoolgirls in provinces they control in order to deny females an education. Such barbarism will spread if we abandon Afghanistan, and leaving Afghans to their fates under Taliban rule would critically undermine confidence in U.S. reliability and discourage other local populations from cooperating with future U.S. counterterrorism campaigns.
2. Support for the transition plan is crucial: While committing to victory, Republicans should also support the NATO-approved timeline for ending the NATO mission in Afghanistan before 2015. Republicans should emphasize they support this timeline not because they are looking for the exits, but because indigenous security forces are more effective in conducting counterinsurgency campaigns than foreign forces. Until the revamping of the NATO training mission in November 2009, there were not enough Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to execute such a transition. Although the ANSF will meet its numerical goals by the end of this year, it still needs at least two fighting seasons of experience to be able to assume full responsibility for the campaign. By supporting this timeline, Republicans acknowledge that an open-ended troop presence is not the most effective way to secure our objectives in Afghanistan, while casting the transition in terms of victory rather than Mr. Obama’s emphasis on withdrawal.
3. The ANSF should be fully funded through 2024: To ensure the ANSF will be able to prevent the re-establishment of terrorist sanctuaries, Republican lawmakers should commit to fully funding a 350,000-man ANSF for a decade after the 2014 transition, a commitment expected to cost $40 billion to $60 billion. This investment would signal to key fence-sitters (i.e., Afghans who side with the Taliban for fear of abandonment, and Pakistan’s military) that America will remain committed to Afghanistan’s security after our combat forces leave, thereby helping to achieve our strategic objectives. Although the administration may claim this would deter contributions from international donors, the assumption that allies or the Afghan government will provide the required funding is risible given past precedents of unfunded pledges, Europe’s anticipated fiscal crises and Afghanistan’s still-nascent economy.
Given budgetary pressures, why should Republicans commit to spending billions of dollars abroad? The answer is that the alternative is far more expensive. The Sept. 11 attacks resulted in $40 billion in insurance costs alone. Funding the ANSF for a decade would cost $20 billion less than the $88.5 billion required to fund U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan for a single year. If other countries can make significant donations, so much the better. But the threat of renewed terrorism emanating from a failed Afghanistan is sufficient that Congress should not make America’s security dependent upon Europe’s finances. By offering this vital commitment, Republicans can improve conditions on the ground, strengthen our long-term interests, and make the argument that Mr. Obama is once again “leading from behind.”
4. Withdrawal of the “surge” forces should be delayed until November: Ignoring his military commanders’ advice, Mr. Obama promised to withdraw the remaining 20,000 surge forces by September. Consequently, these units are already shifting focus from operations to the logistics of redeployment, thereby sacrificing months of potential gains. As ill-advised as this redeployment may be, Republican calls to maintain 90,000 troops in Afghanistan beyond 2012 are misperceived as support for an endless conflict. Republicans would instead be better advised to urge the president to delay this withdrawal until the end of the Afghan fighting season in November. There is clear precedent for such a delay, as in April 2004 the 1st Armored Division was halfway to Kuwait when its deployment was extended in order to suppress the uprising led by Muqtada al-Sadr in southern Iraq. If forced to deny this extension, Mr. Obama would once again be exposed to charges that he elevates politics above national security, a grave failing that was highlighted by the recent leaks about cyberattacks against the Iranian nuclear program.
5. It is important to reiterate that we are winning: U.S. commanders overwhelmingly believe the Afghan surge has had the operational effect intended, producing profound security improvements in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. Other security indicators such as civilian fatalities and improvised explosive device attacks show that Taliban operations are increasingly less successful and conducted in a shrinking battle space. Although public support for the war in Afghanistan is ebbing, this is in part because of Mr. Obama’s unwillingness to publicize these successes. His lack of leadership not only shortchanges our troops in uniform, who deserve recognition from the president of their accomplishments, but undermines efforts to build upon these gains. Republicans have an opportunity to fill this leadership void. Moreover, Republican optimism would serve as a vivid contrast to an administration whose senior leaders have been persistently pessimistic about American leadership since the Iraqi surge, about which they were also badly mistaken.
Although the upcoming election will be dominated by economic issues, Republican lawmakers and candidates have an obligation to articulate a clear vision of America’s interests. It is not enough to say the president has been negligent as a war leader — Republicans must also demonstrate why they would be better stewards of our national security. Although it is not a popular subject, Afghanistan offers Republicans an opportunity to highlight the danger of the president’s strategic vision, and to educate and reassure Americans that they understand what is at stake in the Afghan endgame.
Benjamin Runkle is a former Defense Department and National Security official and the author of “Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to bin Laden” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).