WASHINGTON – Here’s some news that both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney would like you to ignore: Tens of thousands of American soldiers are at war this summer in Afghanistan.
Though you’d never know it from listening to the candidates, U.S. Marine and Army units have been fighting hard against the Afghan Taliban across the south and east of the country. They are taking considerable casualties. In July, according to the website icasualties.org, 46 American and coalition troops were killed — the highest total since last September. Six more died in the first few days of August.
U.S. forces are taking hits from ambushes and roadside bombs as they struggle to secure the main highway link through Ghazni province between Kabul and the southern city of Kandahar. Others are battling the Taliban’s attempt to regain ground in and around Kandahar.
Contrary to Obama’s campaign rhetoric, the “tide of war” in Afghanistan is not “receding.” The number of insurgent attacks for the three months ending June 30 was up 11 percent over last year; in June, when 39 coalition troops died, there was an average of 110 attacks per day. Though both troop and civilian casualties are down compared to 2011, the summer fighting season is showing that, far from being defeated, the Taliban may be gaining some momentum.
Yet this may be the first presidential campaign in U.S. history in which an ongoing war fails to produce a significant debate. Explicitly or implicitly, the candidates have successfully encouraged much of the media to accept the following conventional wisdom: The war is a failure but is winding down; U.S. combat troops will be out by the end of 2014; and Obama and Romney agree on the strategy.
Yet Americans are still dying — and the strategy that the presidential candidates supposedly agree upon is far from firm. In fact, the U.S. president has a series of crucial decisions to make about the future of Afghanistan, most within 12 months of the election. And, for now at least, there’s no knowing whether Obama and Romney differ over them — because neither has given much hint of what he would do.
The first choice may come within weeks after Nov. 7: Whether re-elected or not, Obama will have to consider his commanders’ recommendations on the pace of the next U.S. troop drawdown. By September, the 30,000 surge troops Obama dispatched to Afghanistan will be gone, leaving some 68,000. The question will be whether to leave those forces there through next summer’s fighting season, as favored by the generals, or order quicker withdrawals.
Obama’s history suggests that he would order more troops out before next fall: After all, he has rejected the commanders’ favored option on Afghan troop deployments twice before. Romney, for his part, has faulted Obama for not listening to his generals. But does that mean he would forgo any withdrawals next year? He’s offered no indication.
The next big presidential decision may come sometime during 2013: how many and what quality of U.S. forces to leave in Afghanistan after 2014. In principle, it’s already agreed that U.S. and NATO special forces, trainers and “enablers” will help the Afghan army secure the country. But a detailed agreement must still be worked out with the Afghan government. The Pentagon will likely seek a force in the tens of thousands, including a robust special-forces contingent. But the plan for a similar force in Iraq was shredded by the Obama White House, which first drastically reduced its size, then failed to sell it to the Iraqi government.
Would Obama do the same to the follow-on Afghan force? Would Romney decide differently? Voters are in the dark.
There will be more critical decisions: whether to fully fund Afghan security forces after 2014, and for how long; whether to support a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, and if so, whether to offer concessions to Taliban leaders to jump-start the talks; whether to overtly or covertly support a candidate in Afghanistan’s scheduled 2014 presidential election.
Perhaps most critically, the president must choose whether finally to strike against the Taliban’s enclaves in Pakistan or to allow them to remain while most Western troops pull out. That choice may determine whether the democratic regime the United States has labored to build in Kabul will survive.
No doubt Obama and Romney would find it both uncomfortable and politically unprofitable to address these questions between now and November. This is why they would like you to forget that America is at war.
Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor for The Washington Post.