In a recent debate in Florida, Mitt Romney was asked how he plans to end the lengthy war in Afghanistan, given that he has rejected the idea of trying to negotiate with the Taliban.
“By beating them,” he answered.
It was a strong, manly answer, short and to the point. And yes, beating them sounds like quite an appealing option.
On the other hand, we’ve been at it for more than a decade now, through a good part of three presidential terms, and have lost more than 1,800 American lives in the process. And we don’t seem to be much closer to “beating them” than we were when we began. While we’ve succeeded in weakening the movement, Taliban leadership has retreated to havens in Pakistan, where we continue to strike at them when possible via drones and missiles. Short of an invasion of Pakistan, “beating them” seems a very tall order. If Romney has specific ideas on how that might be accomplished, I have not seen them.
In fact, two of Romney’s own foreign-policy advisers, Mitchell Reiss and James Shinn, have publicly endorsed negotiations. As Shinn writes with co-author James Dobbins in “Afghan Peace Talks: A Primer”, the bottom-line goal of U.S. policy must be to prevent a return of al Qaeda to Afghanistan. He and Dobbins write:
“The United States can prevent this indefinitely as long as it is willing to commit significant military and economic resources to a counterinsurgency effort. It cannot eliminate the threat, however, as long as the Afghan insurgents enjoy sanctuary in and support from Pakistan. The United States could also achieve its objective if the Taliban could be persuaded to cut ties with al Qaeda and end its insurgency in exchange for some role in Afghan governance short of total control.
Peace negotiations would obviously be desirable if they could succeed in achieving this objective, but they are also worth pursuing even if they fail, as the risks associated with entering such a process may be greater for the insurgents than for the Afghan government and its allies.”
There’s a lot of hard truth packed in those two paragraphs. As Shinn and Dobbins write, we can keep the Taliban at bay as long as the United States “is willing to commit significant military and economic resources to a counterinsurgency effort.” But we aren’t willing to do so forever, and we know it. Public opinion in this country has turned sharply against an open-ended continuation of the war, and the Afghanis are growing tired of our presence as well.
In fact, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has from time to time denounced NATO forces as occupiers, claiming at one point that “It is just for their national interest that they put our lives under their feet and dishonor the people.”
In light of that reality, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta this week announced plans to end active U.S. involvement in combat in Afghanistan by the end of 2013. U.S. forces after that point would serve to train and assist Afghan government forces, including providing air cover, air transport and logistics support. But the brunt of the fighting would be done by the Afghans themselves.
Yesterday, Romney cast scorn on that approach, describing Panetta as “misguided and naive.”
“He announced that so the Taliban hears it, the Pakistanis hear it, the Afghan leaders hear it,” Romney said. “Why in the world do you go to the people that you’re fighting with and tell them the day you’re pulling out your troops? It makes absolutely no sense. [Obama’s] naivete is putting in jeopardy the mission of the United States of America and our commitments to freedom. He is wrong. We need new leadership in Washington.”
With those seemingly passionate comments, Romney repeats a refrain against announcing timelines that became familiar during the Iraq years. But again, it’s a curious stance. Because you see, Romney himself has publicly endorsed a deadline of 2014 for the withdrawal of almost all NATO military forces, including Americans, from Afghanistan. To borrow his language, Romney announced that support “so the Taliban hears it, the Pakistanis hear it, the Afghan leaders hear it.”
So I’m not sure exactly what his argument is, other than to make meaningless noise on the campaign trail and try to pump himself up as a strong-willed military leader.
If we are going to withdraw almost completely by 2014, leaving behind perhaps a group of advisers, trainers and intelligence specialists, it seems reasonable and rational that you would give the Afghan security forces a year to find their footing before handing them full responsibility.
But hey, if Romney has a plan for how to “beat the Taliban” and yet be out of Afghanistan by 2014, and to do so without giving Afghan security forces a transition period in which they take the lead role with strong U.S. backing, the American people would like to hear it.
Otherwise, his rhetoric comes across as macho blather, and I believe that rather recent experience has soured the American people on that for a while.
– Jay Bookman