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 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT