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The Candidates on Afghanistan

Issue Tracker

Updated: October 31, 2012

The United States invaded Afghanistan a few months after the 9/11 attacks in order to quash the threat of al-Qaeda and overthrow the ruling Taliban regime, which had harbored the terror network. As of August 2012, the conflict has killed more than two thousand U.S. troops and cost more than $440 billion (through 2011), according to congressional estimates. In the coming months, the United States will be pulling back its troops, transitioning from a combat to a training role by mid-2013, and then relinquishing overall security responsibility to Afghan forces by the end of 2014. In May 2012, the two countries signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement providing a framework for post-conflict relations.

With the U.S. presidential campaign's overwhelming focus on economics, some analysts have decried the paucity of debate over the increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's primary criticism of President Obama's policies in Afghanistan have centered on the pace of the troop drawdown. The Romney campaign denounced the White House for putting forth a timetable for withdrawal and for its decision to remove the so-called "surge troops" by September 2012--a "political" move that Romney says "disregarded the counsel of his top military commanders."

Editor's Note: Click here for more CFR Issue Trackers and other 2012 campaign resources, which examine the foreign policy and national security dimensions of the presidential race.

Barack Obama

Democratic Incumbent, Running Mate Joe Biden

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Obama has said he views Afghanistan as a central front in the war on terror. In March 2009, he adopted a so-called Af-Pak strategy, which increased focus on targeting terrorist safe havens in Pakistan. He also decided to increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan (USAToday) by 33,000 as part of a beefed up counterinsurgency plan. In June 2011, Obama announced a drawdown of 10,000 troops by the end of that year, with a total withdrawal to be completed by 2014.

After Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan by U.S. forces based in Afghanistan, Obama noted that the removal of Taliban support was one of the steps to bin Laden's demise. On the anniversary of the tenth year of the war in October 2011, Obama also touted U.S. successes in Afghanistan. "We've pushed the Taliban out of its key strongholds, Afghan security forces are growing stronger, and the Afghan people have a new chance to forge their own future," he said. On February 1, 2012, Obama's defense secretary, Leon Panetta, announced U.S. combat missions would end as early as mid-2013, accelerating a transition to a security assistance role.

Timeline: U.S. War in Afghanistan

In a May visit to Afghanistan, President Barack Obama signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement, which outlines a ten-year U.S. commitment to supporting security and development after the planned major troop withdrawal in 2014. "As I've said before, the United States has not come here to claim resources or to claim territory," Obama said at the signing. "We came with a very clear mission: We came to destroy al-Qaeda."

In August 2012, the president reaffirmed the Pentagon's transition plan in Afghanistan--including having U.S. troops advise and train local forces--despite a spike in so-called "green-on-blue" attacks. Afghan forces killed nine U.S. servicemen in the prior ten days. "For us to train [Afghan forces] effectively, we are in much closer contact," the president said. "In the long term, we will see fewer U.S. casualties and coalition casualties by sticking to our transition plan and making sure that we've got the most effective Afghan security force possible. But we've got to do it in a way that doesn't leave our guys vulnerable."

In his Democratic National Convention speech in September 2012, Obama said: "We've blunted the Taliban's momentum in Afghanistan and in 2014, our longest war will be over."

In the third presidential debate, held on October 22, Obama emphasized his plan to reallocate resources freed up by ending the war in Afghanistan to focus on "nation building at home," and cited important domestic projects like upgrading aging infrastructure and reforming public schools.

Mitt Romney

Republican Candidate, Running Mate Paul Ryan

In an October 2011 white paper, the Romney campaign said that in order to defeat Afghan insurgents, he would make clear to Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the U.S. commitment "must be met with reciprocal efforts to crack down on corruption in his government, respect free and fair elections as required by the Afghan constitution, and coordinate with the United States on fighting the narcotics trade that fuels the insurgency."

Romney has criticized the setting of a withdrawal date for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, saying it provides too much information to the enemy. However, he has provided some indication of his preferred timing of a drawdown. In a November 2011 debate, Romney said that the "right timetable" for completely withdrawing troops from Afghanistan was by the end of 2014. He has said repeatedly that his decision (ABC) would be based on advice from generals on the ground. A gradual transition, Romney said, is necessary for handing off responsibility to Afghan security forces. "Our effort there is to keep Afghanistan from becoming a launching point for terror against the United States," he said.

Romney said on Fox News in February 2012 that the United States should focus on helping Afghanistan build up (TheHill) "its own military and security forces" so they can "maintain the sovereignty of their government from an attack from the Taliban. We do not want to see Afghanistan once again return to a Taliban dominated nation with al-Qaeda and other training camps coming into the nation," he added.

At a New Hampshire town hall in August 2012, Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan made several remarks critical of U.S. plans for leaving Afghanistan (ABC). "A drawdown occurring in the middle of a fighting season when we are still giving our military the same mission, we don't want to do something that would put them in jeopardy," Ryan said, suggesting President Obama's plan was more about politics. "We want them to fulfill the mission in the safest way possible and that, to me, means you make decisions based on what is right for the country, for our national security."

At the same event, Mitt Romney also discussed his views on the U.S. mission in Afghanistan (WSJ), saying he would do everything in his power to facilitate the transition from U.S. military action to Afghan forces taking over the primary security role, though he has not given specific details on how his plans would differ from current policy. He also criticized the president for not speaking more often about the war's progress (NYT).

Romney did not mention the war in Afghanistan in his GOP convention speech in late August 2012.

In a major foreign policy address in October, Romney vowed to make a "successful transition to Afghan security forces" by the end of 2014. "[T]he route to more war--and to potential attacks here at home--is a politically timed retreat that abandons the Afghan people to the same extremists who ravaged their country and used it to launch the attacks of 9/11," he said. "I will evaluate conditions on the ground and weigh the best advice of our military commanders. And I will affirm that my duty is not to my political prospects, but to the security of the nation."

In the third presidential debate, held on October 22, Romney made his most definitive statement yet about the troop drawdown, saying, "[W]hen I'm president, we'll make sure we bring our troops out by the end of 2014. The commanders and the generals there are on track to do so."


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