Skip to main content

Romney offers politics, not a plan, on Afghanistan

By Blake Hounshell, Special to CNN
updated 5:38 PM EDT, Mon April 23, 2012
A member of the foreign forces points gun at building being used by insurgents near scene of an attack in Kabul last week
A member of the foreign forces points gun at building being used by insurgents near scene of an attack in Kabul last week
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Blake Hounshell: Obama got bin Laden but hasn't brought stability to Afghanistan
  • Enter Mitt Romney, he says, who denounces Obama but whose positions are all over the place
  • He says Romney would do about same as Obama; Afghanistan is an intractable conflict
  • Hounshell: U.S. will leave Afghanistan under Romney or Obama; not easy, but necessary

Editor's note: Blake Hounshell is the managing editor at Foreign Policy.

(CNN) -- Let's face it: Barack Obama has not exactly been the second coming of Alexander the Great. He swept into office vowing to step up the war effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and he did, sending 30,000 fresh troops into the former and vastly expanding drone strikes in the latter.

Obama managed to get Osama bin Laden, an achievement will likely be hearing about ad nauseum on the campaign trail over the long months ahead. But he hasn't realized the much more difficult goal of bringing stability to Afghanistan, a land we have now been trying to stabilize for more than a decade. The recent spectacular attacks in Kabul, in which insurgents were able to once again paralyze the capital for 24 hours, may not have been Tet II, but they did underscore just how the fragile the planned 2014 handover to Afghan control really is.

Enter Mitt Romney, whose positions on Afghanistan have been all over the map. He's criticized the Obama administration for setting a timeline for withdrawal, but he has endorsed the timeline in practice. He's denounced the idea of negotiating with the Taliban but hasn't explained how he plans to defeat the insurgent movement on the battlefield. His main substantive complaint seems to be that Obama is withdrawing the surge troops by September instead of ... December.

Indeed, his campaign's few pronouncements on this subject are reminiscent of Richard Nixon's "secret plan" to end the war in Vietnam, which turned out to be a plan to cut and run without ever admitting as much. The truth is that Romney holds more or less the same position on Afghanistan as the president -- steadily turning control over to the Afghans in the run-up to 2014, while cajoling the Pakistanis to be more cooperative -- but he just can't admit it.

Politically speaking, this is a smart strategy. Poll after poll has shown that Americans simply aren't interested in spending billions of their dwindling tax dollars to prop up Hamid Karzai, a deeply unimpressive leader who appears to them as ungrateful as he is incompetent and untrustworthy. That is, to the extent that Americans still think about this long-forgotten war at all.

Balancing act on Afghan-Pakistani border
The stress of war

One way or another, we're leaving Afghanistan, and I suspect we'll someday look back on the conflict and wonder just what we were doing there for so long -- why, for instance, we thought it made sense to spend more money there each year than the country's entire GDP (excluding opium production, that is), and why we thought an impoverished, land-locked strategic backwater was such an important chess piece in a new "Great Game."

As long as Pakistan sees its interests as diametrically opposed to ours, and shelters and colludes with our enemies, this war could grind on forever. As long as Afghanistan is led by venal and weak-kneed partners, counterinsurgency is a waste of time. And nothing in the past decade suggests any of that will change on any time scale the American people will accept.

None of this is to say that leaving Afghans -- especially women -- to their fates after all we've promised them is a comfortable moral decision to make. I don't envy the American officials having to explain that all the talk about saving Afghan women was just political rhetoric from a country that, at the end of the day, makes its national security decisions based on hard-nosed interests, not sentiment. But those conversations would happen under a Romney presidency just as they would under a second Obama term.

We've gotten our revenge for 9/11. Bin Laden is at the bottom of the Arabian Sea, and the core of his al Qaeda network is much diminished. Karzai's government has been given an ample chance to succeed or fail on its own. As for Alexander, let's not forget -- Afghanistan was where the greatest general in history met his match. History may not be repeating itself today, but it sure does rhyme.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Blake Hounshell.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 4:08 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI helped pave the way to WWII. That backfire changed how the global community lays blame for war crimes today: on individuals, not nations
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT