Afghanistan War Debate Goes AWOL in U.S. Elections: Albert Hunt

It’s a useful exercise to juxtapose Bob Woodward’s new book on the war in Afghanistan, “Obama’s Wars,” with the agenda discussed in elections across the country.

There is a total disconnect: The Woodward book depicts Afghanistan as a quagmire-to-be with no clear and coherent strategy. There are almost 100,000 young American men and women deployed there at an annual cost of $119 billion -- almost three times the ultimate cost to taxpayers of the entire Troubled Asset Relief Program to rescue the financial system -- and with casualties rising.

In Senate and House races all across the U.S., the venue for debating important issues, the candidates are largely silent about the war, irrespective of the contest, region or party.

This absence from the agenda reflects the dominance of the economic concerns facing many Americans. It’s also a matter of political convenience: Democrats with reservations about the war don’t what to criticize an already beleaguered president, and Republicans want to appear muscular and tough without providing any plan or specifics.

Political leaders of both parties say it’s all about the economy; Afghanistan is an afterthought. “It’s not a big campaign issue; it’s a difficult time to talk about the war,” says Representative Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican who is heading his party’s effort to gain a House majority.

‘Riveted on the Economy’

“There are races where people care about Afghanistan, but overwhelmingly this election is riveted on the economy,” says Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

A glance at candidates’ websites underscores the point. In Nevada, the Senate Majority leader, Harry Reid, cites Afghanistan in passing and only with respect to the need to take care of veterans. His Republican challenger, Sharron Angle, a self-described “staunch supporter of the U.S. military,” omits any reference to the conflict.

The press bears some responsibility; in most candidate debates, Afghanistan is a non-issue.

The contestants for a Kentucky Senate seat, Republican Rand Paul and Democrat Jack Conway, last weekend had a full-fledged national debate on Fox News; the war never came up.

A few days earlier, in California, Senate candidates Barbara Boxer, the incumbent Democrat, and her Republican challenger, Carly Fiorina, were grilled in a debate. The one question on Afghanistan, to Boxer, came at the end; Fiorina was asked nothing.

Connecticut Race

A similar story unfolded in a Connecticut debate. The Republican Senate candidate, Linda McMahon, when asked about Afghanistan, initially went back to the minimum-wage issue. Near the end of a formless answer, she came up with this bottom line: As a senator, she’d like “a detailed briefing on what exactly the goals and strategies are in Afghanistan.”

That may prove frustrating, as McMahon would discover if she read “Obama’s War.” Woodward’s detail-rich, behind-the-scenes reporting on the administration’s decision-making on Afghanistan shows that almost no one, other than Vice President Joe Biden, verbosity aside, comes off well. President Barack Obama is seen committing 50,000 U.S. troops to a strategy he seems to doubt.

Tom Donilon, a White House political-national security adviser, who was tapped last week to succeed General James L. Jones as National Security Adviser, at one point wonders, “My God, what are we getting this guy into?”

Few Options

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff -- both estimable men -- appear derelict by refusing the president’s request for options other than escalation.

There are few Americans as admired as General David Petraeus, the strategist and hero of the surge in Iraq, where the ruling clique now apparently includes the violently anti-American cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr. At one stage, Petraeus, angry at the White House, leaks his skepticism about Obama to a columnist who is a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. The confident commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan was told by his highly regarded intelligence adviser earlier this year that the U.S. policy in that country was fatally flawed, “is not going to work.”

The only consensus among U.S. political and military officials: The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, is a corrupt, unstable and unreliable ally.

Orderly Withdrawal

This troubling context is the backdrop for hugely important decisions -- with pulling out and major escalations off the table -- that will be made within months of this November’s congressional elections. Obama plans an orderly withdrawal starting next July, though it will be “conditions-based.”

If you read dispatches from Afghanistan and the Woodward book it seems very doubtful that any reasonable conditions for withdrawal -- economic and political progress in the country, a reduction of violence and the Taliban in retreat -- can be met. So what should the U.S. do? How should a flawed strategy be altered? What should be the size and scope of the American commitment and, most important, how does it affect Pakistan?

A handful of candidates do address the issue. Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, says victory is essential and the U.S. must expend whatever resources are necessary to meet that objective. (He is unwilling to raise taxes, including on the wealthy, to help pay for these efforts.)

‘Valuable Recruiting Tool’

On the left, Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin says the U.S. must set a firmer timetable for withdrawal. Otherwise, al-Qaeda will have “a valuable recruiting tool” and U.S. troops and taxpayers will be “on the hook.”

It isn’t reasonable to expect the vast majority of politicians, most of whom have little background in national security, to put together a cogent policy. And no sensible politician this year would emphasize Afghanistan over the economy.

It is reasonable to expect these candidates to discuss and debate how long we’re willing to put our troops in harm’s way, at what cost in treasure and with what consequences. In a democracy, that’s what elections are about.

In 2010, while brave young American men and women put their lives on the line 10,000 miles away, the politicians at home are flunking this test.

(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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