During tonight’s debate, the real difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on Afghanistan will be somewhat hard to discern. The president adopted a strategy in 2009 to target “terrorist” safe havens in Pakistan and surge an additional 33,000 troops into Afghanistan, which have now been drawn down. Obama plans to complete a total drawdown at the end of 2014, though his administration is apparently already negotiating to maintain some kind of troop presence there past that date.
Romney, too, supports an American withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of 2014, and has repeatedly said that’s the “right timetable.” He and Paul Ryan have still criticized Obama on his plans, hitting the president for engaging in a supposedly “politicized” removal of surge troops and for not listening enough to military commanders—but substantively, they seem to share the same plans as the president. Foreign policy experts are still stumped as to how Romney’s plans are any different, if they are at all.
It’s unusual that Romney and Obama have essentially agreed on a major policy matter, but what’s even odder is that their agreement is so far out of line with the American people. Under either president, the end of the war in Afghanistan wouldn’t come for two more years—and the public clearly wants out now.
Detailed polling on Afghanistan earlier this year clearly showed that Americans no longer think the war is worth fighting: only 27 percent of Americans support the war, while 66 percent do not. That’s on par with the peak opposition of the Vietnam War. Moreover, 60 percent of Americans support withdrawal as soon as possible—that is, not waiting two years until the end of 2014—versus 35 percent who want to stay until the situation is stabilized. That’s a gap that has been widening since the death of Osama bin Laden:
It’s ironic that Obama, who was elected in no small part because of his opposition to an unpopular war, is prolonging an unpopular war while in office. He doesn’t seem to be paying much of a political price, however, since his opponent supports the same policy and if anything makes (very vague) attacks on the president for withdrawing too quickly. This has allowed the administration to get away with some pretty pathetic defenses of an unpopular war: Obama is currently running ads congratulating himself for withdrawing 30,000 troops from Afghanistan—not mentioning he surged those 30,000 troops in the first place, and American officials already think the Taliban will retake the areas the additional troops fought to control. Earlier this year, White House press secretary Jay Carney said, “the reason why U.S. troops are in Afghanistan in the first place, is to disrupt, dismantle and ultimately defeat al Qaeda.” The Nation pressed the administration for days to reveal when the last time an Al Qaeda fighter was killed in Afghanistan. The answer: April 2011.
For more pre-debate predictions, check out John Nichols on what should be said about outsourcing. And join Nation writers and readers for live fact-checking and commentary during tonight’s debate. RSVP to the live chat here.