|The Unmentionable War
||The New York Times
In his speech at the Republican National Convention, Mitt Romney avoided any mention of the war in Afghanistan.
A week later, in accepting the Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama gave a pass to the word “success” in describing the outcome of what he had once called the “war of necessity.”
The president asserted instead that “we’ve blunted the Taliban’s momentum.” That’s a retreat from “breaking the Taliban’s momentum” — the specific task Obama attached to announcing a surge of 33,000 troops to fight the officially right and good war in December 2009. And a step back from an objective that the incumbent had pointed to this May 1 as a mission accomplished.
Romney? In his clearest statement on Afghanistan, made in January, he said, “We should not negotiate with the Taliban. We should defeat the Taliban.”
No plan explaining how to do that has been offered by the Republican challenger. At the same time, he maintains — in tune with Obama’s timeline for withdrawal — that almost all U.S. troops should be out of Afghanistan in 2014.
Now, as a result of a series of attacks by Afghan soldiers and police forces on allied and U.S. troops, the NATO coalition has sharply curtailed joint operations with the Afghans. This step raises doubts about the workability of the allied training mission that is at the heart of the American exit strategy.
You get the picture. Think of this headline three years down the road: “Mystery Force Crushes Taliban, World Rejoices.”
For months, Romney, alongside Obama, has sustained the nondiscussion of a double concern that allied officials see in the presidential election: whether America is now inured to failing to win its good wars, and how much of an obligation remains in the minds of its two presidential candidates that the United States must function as global good cop and ultimate recourse in maintaining international stability.
Six years ago, Obama wrote that not only would the United States have to continue in its sheriff role, he insisted that “this will not change — nor should it.”
Today there are more than 80,000 U.S. troops still in Afghanistan following the Obama surge (an effort that was subordinated to the administration’s fixation with finding a date when U.S. forces would begin to leave, according to Bob Woodward in his book “Obama’s Wars”). But the result of their mission clearly did not make good on former Defense Secretary Robert Gates promise to the Afghanistan-bound troops, and America’s friends, that “we’re in this to win.”
Attempting to counsel Romney earlier this year on how to play the situation in the face of an electorate that largely disapproves of involvement in Afghanistan, Republican advisers urged him to condemn a drawdown that “emboldens America’s adversaries and discourages its allies.”
Romney’s expressions of resolve, in fact, have topped out with flimsiness like, “America must lead the free world and the free world must lead the entire world.” (Reacting in the same rhetorical register to the terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Libya, Obama exclaimed, “America will never retreat from the world.”)
But Romney also appears to have decided that voters cannot handle — and he won’t bring up — what the American journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran, author of “Little America,” an incisive book about American engagement in Afghanistan, has called the “fundamental moral question” of the administration’s “good war turned bad”: “How do you justify all the loss of the life and limb of all those who ‘surged’ if the path was really to exit?”
Rather than experiencing a campaign confrontation about the war’s nonsuccess, Americans have gotten (and so far seemingly accepted) its evasion. Chandrasekaran even talks of “a conspiracy of silence” between Obama and Romney.
This is more certain: No one running for president shows any inclination to talk about what becomes of a broken, corrupt and prospectively dysfunctional country after 2014. Or the enormous costs that would be tied to Afghanistan’s continued maintenance by the United States and its allies. Or, in the end, what the candidates’ flight from focusing more sharply on the war says to the world about the wavering status of America as the single global force able to say no to chaos.
It tells us “that this is a much less safe world.” The phrase belongs to Pierre Lellouche, who served as the former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
He said: “The Americans are increasingly going to be spectators. There’s no more money. We’re seeing America’s retreat into itself, with no more boots on the ground, but a reliance on military technology like drones.”
For another impression, I asked a European cabinet minister with experience in Afghanistan. He did not want to be identified by name. Diplomatically, he expressed no sharp disillusionment about the U.S. role. But he wound up saying that through the Afghan experience, “the concept of American determination has been diminished.”
The presidential election campaign is confirming this as a fact.
As for the candidates and their notional duty to bring into discussion the miserable reality of what The Associated Press calls “America’s forgotten war,” abdication, at least for now, might be the best descriptive.