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U.S. candidates can’t ignore war in Afghanistan

by Fred Hiatt

The Washington Post

As Republicans gathered in Tampa on Aug. 27, a 25-year-old Army sergeant serving his third tour in Afghanistan, Christopher J. Birdwell of Windsor, Colorado, was killed in action.

“Everybody loved him,” his brother, Dustin, 23, told the Fort Collins Coloradoan. “He was a really fun guy to be around.”

On Aug. 28, as the convention began, the Army identified a soldier killed with Birdwell: Spec. Mabry J. Anders, 21, of Baker City, Oregon. Another coalition soldier, not yet identified, was killed in an insurgent attack in eastern Afghanistan the same day.

On Aug. 30, the final day of the convention, someone in an Afghan uniform killed three more coalition troops. That morning, maybe as Mitt Romney was running through his acceptance speech one last time, the body of Army Pfc. Shane Cantu of Corunna, Michigan, arrived at Dover Air Force Base. Cantu, 20, had been killed just a few weeks after arriving in Afghanistan when an insurgent threw an explosive over his base wall, his former high school football coach told the Detroit Free Press.

Thursday night Romney delivered the most important speech of his life, telling Americans why he wants to be president and how he would lead the nation. He mentioned the war in Afghanistan zero times.

Has the nation ever been at war and that war been more absent from a presidential convention — or a presidential campaign? Some 68,000 U.S. troops will still be deployed to Afghanistan at the end of September, many of them fighting in the most remote and dangerous conditions imaginable. Some 2,100 have been killed, according to iCasualties.org, more than two-thirds of them under President Barack Obama.

And though the war seems almost forgotten for many Americans, there is still plenty to debate about how it will be conducted in the next few years.

Obama has commanded the war in Afghanistan with a kind of split-the- baby ambivalence. In 2009, he ordered a major ramp-up of U.S. troops while setting the date to begin their withdrawal. His motivations — encouraging the Afghans to take ownership of the fight, managing war fatigue at home — were understandable. But the obvious question was: If the strategic goal justifies such a commitment of U.S. lives, how can it be prudent to order a withdrawal regardless of whether the goal has been achieved?

Last summer Obama overruled his generals’ advice in ordering a drawdown of 10,000 troops in 2011 and an additional 23,000 by this summer. He insisted that “the tide of war is receding” and that it was “time to focus on nation-building here at home.” Yet U.S. deaths continue: 34 in January, 24 in February, 39 in March, 39 in April, 45 in May, 39 in June, 46 in July, 53 in August.

Romney has criticized Obama at times for setting a withdrawal date, which he said emboldens the enemy, and he has pledged to listen to his commanders in setting withdrawal schedules. But he also has endorsed the goal, now accepted by NATO and Afghanistan, of ceding the combat mission to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.

Even given that broad agreement, big questions remain. How quickly will U.S. forces be drawn down next year? South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the Armed Forces Committee who has tried to keep attention focused on the war, told me and a few Washington Post colleagues in Tampa that the U.S. mission can still succeed but that the risk is growing — and that too rapid a withdrawal next summer could be fatal.

How large a training and counterterrorism force will be left after 2014? That decision, more than any other, could determine whether the American casualties of the past decade will have delivered long-term security or whether Afghanistan will once again become a breeding ground of terror and misogyny.

Americans are tired of war. It’s not surprising that the candidates don’t want to dwell on it, though neither has neglected it entirely. Romney mentioned Afghanistan in a speech to veterans the day before his acceptance address; Obama followed a visit to the troops with a discussion of them in his radio address Saturday.

But it isn’t right for a country to send troops into battle and then not debate their mission.

“When our men and women are in harm’s way, I expect the president of the United States to address the nation on a regular basis and explain what’s happening and why they’re there and what the mission is, what its progress is, how we’ll know when it’s completed,” Romney said not long ago. “Other presidents have done this. We haven’t heard this president do this.”

I think that’s a fair expectation. I think it applies just as well to the man who would be president.

Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Washington Post.