One of the minor disgraces of this year's campaign is that the presidential candidates act as if the war in Afghanistan doesn't exist. We have 84,000 troops fighting over there in very difficult circumstances; they've had a tough few weeks, with 41 killed in the last month, but the candidates barnstorm the country with barely a mention of the war or the troops.
President Obama typically has a line or two like this in his speeches (this is what he said Sunday night in Colorado): "We’ve set a timeline to end the war in Afghanistan, to make Afghans responsible for their own security. And we could not have done all this if it had not been for our outstanding men and women in uniform." It's better than nothing. But the president speaks as if the efforts of our men and women in uniform occurred in the past ("we could not have done all this if it had not been..."). And he seems to feel no need to defend his strategy, or to address the obvious fact that his precipitate drawdown—against the recommendation of his military commanders—has made the fight much tougher for our troops, who are stretched too thin and who have to deal with a situation in which the Afghan people, and the enemy, think we're getting out rather than fighting to win.
Mitt Romney has been no better. He didn't visit Afghanistan—or any U.S. troops—on his foreign trip. He didn't mention the war or the troops Saturday, when he spoke, after all, from the deck of a (decommissioned) battleship. Nor do the war and the troops warrant a mention in his standard stump speech—see for example, his remarks last night in Chillicothe, Ohio.
"I realize that there are a lot of other things going on around this country that can draw our attention, from the Olympics, to political campaigns to droughts, to some of the tragedies we’ve seen in communities around the country. I thought it was important to remind the American people that there is a war going on...I just want the American people to take the time and reflect on these sacrifices. At a time when I am sure there is an awful lot to be mad about, there’s a lot to be proud of when it comes to our men and women in uniform."
Is it too much to ask both candidates for commander in chief to take a minute in their appearances to express that pride in our troops—and to take another minute to explain how their policies will seek to ensure their sacrifices will have been worthwhile? We're asking a lot more, after all, of our men and women in uniform.
Tuesday's Wall Street Journal features a very important piece on Afghanistan by Kim and Fred Kagan. The Kagans show how irresponsible it would be for the president to announce the withdrawal of a substantial number of troops in July, as some political advisers in the White House are advocating. They also point out how irresponsible it would be to establish a "bookend" of announcing the planned withdrawal of all the surge troops in 2012.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Michael Mullen, famously said in 2007 that “in Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must.” That strategic view was supposed to change when Barack Obama was elected president. It was candidate Obama, after all, who argued that the war in Iraq was the wrong war to be fighting, and a significant distraction from the far more important conflict in Afghanistan.
President Obama sure did cover a lot of ground last week in his address to the nation announcing the end of combat operations in Iraq. At times the speech resembled one of those late-night, beer-fueled freshman dorm bull sessions, where you start off discussing Led Zeppelin and end up ten hours later debating the ontological principle.
Though he'll regretably be remembered most for his turn in Rolling Stone, we should not forget Gen. Stanley McChrystal's contributions to his country, the Army, and the conflict in Afghanistan.
At McChrystal's Fort McNair retirement ceremony Friday, Robert Gates said of the general, "Over the past decade, arguably no single American has inflicted more fear, more loss of freedom and more loss of life on our country's most vicious and violent enemies than Stan McChrystal."
In light of Erin Sheley's appreciation of William Stuntz in this week's issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD, readers might be interested in the (if I may say so, terrific) articles Stuntz has published in this magazine. They all have intrinsic merit, but the first two were also of some historic importance—they were passed around at the White House, were read (we’re told) by President Bush, and helped make the case for the surge in Iraq.
I simply do not believe that we can establish a lasting westernized democracy in a society that has been based on tribal cultural ties for centuries. Furthermore, the mountainous terrain in Afghanistan, as well as the porous and uncontrolled border region with Northern Pakistan, makes control of this area exceedingly difficult. Iraq's terrain and culture were and are much more suited to these types of operations. I still believe that there was much strategic value to establishing a friendly Iraqi government in a critical region of the world that includes Iran, Syria, Israel, and others. While I acknowledge the significance of Pakistan’s possession of, by some estimates, as many as 100 nuclear weapons, I just don't believe that control of Afghanistan has the same strategic value.
I'm hoping to speak to Campbell later today and will report back then.