Tonight's CNN/Tea Party Express Republican presidential debate focused primarily on the economy. Only two GOP presidential candidates were given the opportunity to weigh in on Afghanistan (there were no questions on Iraq, Libya, etc.)—former Utah governor and Obama administration diplomat Jon Huntsman, and Texas governor Rick Perry. And neither candidate acquitted himself well.
“As the next president of the United States, what will you do to secure safety and protection for the women and children of Afghanistan from the radicals?” Sahar Hekmati, a self-identified immigrant from Afghanistan, asked the candidates.
Huntsman was first to take a crack at it. “We are ten years into this war, Sahar,” President Obama’s former ambassador to China said. “America has given its all in Afghanistan…but the time has come for us to get out of Afghanistan.”
Huntsman then sounded more like President Obama than the previous Republican president of the United States. “We don't need 100,000 troops in Afghanistan nation building at a time when this nation needs to be built," he said. "We're of no value to the rest of the world if our core is crumbling, which it is in this country.”
“I'm here to tell you, Sahar, when we start shining again, it will help the women of Afghanistan along with any other NGO work that can be done there and the collaborative efforts of great volunteer efforts here in the United States,” Huntsman said. “We can get it done, but we have to make sure that the Afghan people increasingly take responsibility for their security going forward.”
CNN host Wolf Blitzer then tossed the question to Governor Perry, who could have easily used the opportunity to criticize Huntsman’s isolationism from the right, but who instead praised Huntsman and also gave an incoherent response.
“Well, I agree with Governor Huntsman when we talk about it's time to bring our young men and women home and as soon and obviously as safely as we can,” Perry said. “But it's also really important for us to have a presence there.”
Perry failed to clarify how we can both bring the troops home and maintain a presence in Afghanistan—he did not give numbers and he did not suggest a specific mission. And he did not say what sort of “presence there” he had in mind.
Perry continued: “And I think the entire conversation about how do we deliver aid to those countries, and is it best spent with a hundred thousand military who have the target on their back in Afghanistan? I don't think so at this particular point in time. I think the best way for us to impact that country is to make a transition where that country's military is going to be taking care of their people. Bring our young men and women home and continue to help them build the infrastructure we need, whether it's schools for young women like yourself or otherwise.”
The questions was the last meaningful one asked in tonight’s debate. Yet it was not at all clear where Perry stands on the issue. Does Perry, like Huntsman, believe that we should withdraw our troops, but (unlike Huntsman) believe that a few should stay behind? What purpose would those few—how many, it was never quite clear—serve in Afghanistan? Would the few troops left behind give advice on the transition to Afghan security forces, or hunt down terrorists in the mountainous region? Or would they target the heroin industry? Additionally, does Perry, like Huntsman, believe that we must nation build at home to save the women in Afghanistan from radicals?
It was not at all clear because Perry did not say.