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The Candidates on Afghanistan

October 24, 2008

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Issue Trackers trace the positions of candidates from the 2008 presidential campaign on major issues related to foreign policy.

When the Bush administration launched the “Global War on Terror” in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Afghanistan was the first theater of battle. But after the ouster of the the Taliban in late 2001 and the UN-backed process of beginning an Afghan democratic transition, U.S. attention and resources shifted to the Iraq front.

Most Democratic candidates, including those who voted to authorize the 2003 invasion of Iraq, faulted the Bush administration for neglecting the Afghan war. But for much of the campaign, Afghanistan received much less attention than Iraq or the administration's declared war on terror.

In the summer of 2008, Afghanistan emerged as a prominent issue in connection with Sen. Barack Obama's (D-IL) first trip there as the presumptive Democratic nominee. During his July 2008 visit, Obama described Afghanistan as a central front in the battle against terrorism and called for the immediate redeployment of some U.S. combat forces from Iraq to Afghanistan. The presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), argued that Iraq remained the primary front in the war on terror, but said additional troops (MSNBC) are needed in Afghanistan.

Democratic Ticket on Afghanistan

Barack Obama
Democratic Party Nominee - President

President Obama has argued the troop surge in Iraq has caused the situation in Afghanistan to deteriorate. He says the United States should redeploy troops from Iraq to Afghanistan. He has said he would send at least two more combat brigades to Afghanistan and will "use this commitment to seek greater contributions—with fewer restrictions—from NATO allies." He has also proposed an additional billion dollars in nonmilitary assistance per year, "with meaningful safeguards to prevent corruption and to make sure investments are made—not just in Kabul—but out in Afghanistan's provinces." Obama said in an October 2008 interview with TIME magazine that opportunities to negotiate with the Taliban should be "explored."

In general, Obama has been critical of the Bush administration's policies relating to the war on terror. In a July 2007 Foreign Affairs article, Obama called the Bush administration's response to 9/11 "conventional thinking of the past, largely viewing problems as state-based and principally amenable to military solutions." As a result of the actions taken under the auspices of the war on terror, Obama says, "the world has lost trust in our purposes and our principles." Obama says Iraq is not and "never was" the main front of the war on terror. Obama has called for a greater counterterrorism focus on Afghanistan and the tribal region of Pakistan.

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Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Democratic Party Nominee - Vice President

Like Barack Obama, Biden says Afghanistan is the "central front" in the war on terror, not Iraq. In a July 2008 speech, Biden said he supports Obama's plan to send two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan. Biden's Senate website says even one additional combat brigade "would make an enormous difference" in Afghanistan.

Biden called the Bush administration's announcement that it will provide $10.2 billion in aid to Afghanistan "a good start—but only a start." In a June 2008 statement on the funding, Biden asked, "Will there be a genuine increase in development aid and will it actually reach the Afghan people? Will the security aid actually be spent improving the police and army? Or will it be siphoned off—as has so often been the case—by well-connected contractors?"

Biden also says the United States needs to provide Afghan farmers with "alternate livelihoods" outside of opium production. "We should be trying to root out the corruption in the Afghan government that lets the druglords operate with complete impunity. We should be taking out refining plants where the narco-barons turn the opium into raw heroin," he says.

Editor's Note:
Sen. Biden withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 3, 2008 and was named Sen. Barack Obama's running mate on August 23, 2008.

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Republican Ticket on Afghanistan

John McCain
Republican Party Nominee - President

If he is elected, McCain said in a September 2008 presidential debate, "I won't repeat the mistake that I regret enormously, and that is, after we were able to help the Afghan freedom fighters and drive the Russians out of Afghanistan, we basically washed our hands of the region." McCain said in a July 2008 speech that the troop surge in Iraq should serve as a model for counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. He said he would implement an integrated "civil-military campaign plan that is focused on providing security for the population."

He also pointed to a lack of "unity of command" in Afghanistan. "Too often, even as American soldiers and diplomats cooperate in the field, their superiors back home have been squabbling. In July 2008, McCain outlined his "comprehensive strategy for victory in Afghanistan," which includes the appointment of an "Afghanistan czar" based in the White House. McCain also said the United States should send an additional three combat brigades to Afghanistan. He later indicated that he might call on NATO (WashPost) to provide some of those troops.

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Sarah Palin
Republican Party Nominee - Vice President

Palin says additional troops are needed in U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan. In September 2008, Palin said the increased U.S. presence in Afghanistan “will lead to further security” (AP) for the United States.

Palin met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai (Reuters) in September 2008, reportedly to discuss the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.

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Democratic Primary Candidates on Afghanistan

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Democratic Primary Candidate

Clinton's team focused on addressing Islamic fundamentalism, making Afghanistan and Pakistan the major front with al-Qaeda, and preventing nuclear proliferation. The war in Iraq is “diverting attention and resources” from Afghanistan, Clinton wrote in a November 2007 Foreign Affairs essay. In May 2008, Clinton pressed Gen. David Petraeus to “refocus” U.S. military efforts on Afghanistan. “[I]f the U.S. is going to suffer another attack on our own soil, it will most certainly originate from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region,” she said in a May 2008 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

In March 2008, Clinton released a plan for what she called the “forgotten front line” in Afghanistan. The plan included a larger role for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and U.S. allies in Afghanistan, and it said she would ask countries unable to sent troops to “instead increase assistance” to Afghanistan.  Clinton also said she would seek “adequate funds” to bolster the Afghan National Army and police force. She planned to “make it a priority that the Afghans receive modern weapons and airlift capabilities to win their war, not hand me downs left over from the Cold War.” Clinton also said she would appoint a special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan “to develop a regional strategy to defeat the Taliban and [al-Qaeda].”

Clinton disagrees with John Edwards’ contention that the war on terror is simply a political slogan and said in the June 2007 Democratic debate that she believes Americans are now “safer than we were.”

Clinton says the main priority in the war on terror should be in preventing “Iran, al-Qaeda and the like” from obtaining weapons of mass destruction. When the Jewish Press asked Clinton in October 2006 how she views the war on terror, she responded, “I don't think our strategy is working. Six years ago, North Korea and Iran were not as close as they are today to having nuclear weapons.”

Editor's Note: Sen. Clinton withdrew her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on June 7, 2008.

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Christopher J. Dodd
Democratic Primary Candidate

Sen. Dodd (D-CT) criticized the Bush administration for “conflating Iraq with the war on terrorism.” He argues that Iraq has distracted the United States from the “looming threat” in North Korea, Iran, and “most importantly, the greater war on terror,” by which he presumably meant the fight against radical jihadists affiliated with Osama Bin Laden.

Dodd voted to approve the use of military force in both Afghanistan and Iraq, though he now supports troop redeployment from Iraq.

Editor's Note: Sen. Dodd withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 3, 2008.

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John Edwards
Democratic Primary Candidate

During his presidential campaign, Edwards called for increasing the number of U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan, though he did not specifically indicate how many additional troops he would send. Edwards also said he would work with U.S. “principal allies” and NATO members “to ensure the commitment of adequate forces and rules of engagement robust enough to ensure their ability to defeat the Taliban and ensure continuing progress of the democratic government in Afghanistan.”

Edwards criticized the war on terror, which he calls a “bumper sticker.” Edwards argued that the war on terror is a political slogan meant to “justify everything [Bush] does: the ongoing war in Iraq, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, spying on Americans, torture.”

In a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, Edwards said: “The worst thing about the Global War on Terror approach is that it has backfired—our military has been strained to the breaking point and the threat from terrorism has grown.” Instead, Edwards says, the United States should forge a new strategy focused on “strong and creative diplomacy,” poverty reduction efforts, improved intelligence methods, and a new defense policy with a clarified “post-Bush, post-9/11, post-Iraq” mission.
Still, Edwards did not always object to the term or doctrine. On the 2004 campaign trail, Edwards often referred to it and criticized (CNN) efforts in Iraq as turning “the focus away from the war on terror.”

Editor's note: Edwards dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination on January 30, 2008.

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Mike Gravel
Democratic Primary Candidate

Gravel said in the June 2007 Democratic debate that he does not believe there is such a thing as the “war on terror.” Gravel is critical of the Bush administration’s war on terror initiatives, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the USA PATRIOT Act.

Editor's Note: Mike Gravel ended his bid for the Democraticnomination on March 26, 2008. He then ran for the LibertarianParty's presidential nomination before announcing the end ofhis political career on May 25, 2008.

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Dennis Kucinich
Democratic Primary Candidate

Rep. Kucinich (D-OH) has opposed virtually all aspects of Bush’s war agenda, including the USA PATRIOT Act and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. When asked to explain his position in the June 2007 Democratic debate, Kucinich said “the global war on terror has been a pretext for aggressive war” and that as president he would reject “war as an instrument of policy.”

Editor's Note: Rep. Kucinich withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 25, 2008.

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Bill Richardson
Democratic Primary Candidate

Richardson says he believes “there is such a thing as a global war on terror.” He believes the focus should be shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan, al-Qaeda, and “jihadist terrorists.” Particularly, he says, U.S. efforts should center on preventing terrorists from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Richardson says much of the violence in the Middle East, particularly involving Israel and Hezbollah, could have been prevented if the United States had placed a permanent envoy in the region. He has also called for an international peacekeeping coalition force to stabilize the Middle East.

Editor's Note: Richardson withdrew his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 10, 2008.

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Republican Primary Candidates on Afghanistan

Sam Brownback
Republican Primary Candidate

Sen. Brownback (R-KS) argues that “winning the war on terror requires the emergence of moderate governments across the Middle East.” Particularly, he says, the United States should encourage a “political equilibrium” in Iraq by helping to facilitate some sort of accord between Sunnis and Shiites. He also advocates increased security on Iraqi borders and says U.S. troops should “chase the foreign fighters out of Iraq.”

He says a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq could result in a disastrous radicalization of the governments in the region, and thereby “reverse the gains that we have made in the war on terror and extend the war on terror for years to come.” Brownback has generally backed the Bush administration’s tough measures in the war on terror, including the Patriot Act and the detention of so-called “enemy combatants” in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Editor's Note: Sen. Brownback withdrew his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination on October 19, 2007.

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James S. Gilmore
Republican Primary Candidate

As the chair of the Congressional Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction, Gilmore has made numerous recommendations for the management of the war on terror, ranging from suggestions on more efficient intelligence-gathering methods to managing Defense Department operations.

Gilmore says the objective should be “to create some stability” and ensure self-determination (Human Events) in the countries where the United States is fighting terrorism. Gilmore also says “we should guard against losing any of our fundamental freedoms as a result of the war on terrorism.” (WashPost)

Editor's note: Gilmore withdrew his candidacy for the Republican nomination in July 2007.

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Rudy Giuliani
Republican Primary Candidate

Giuliani, responding to Edwards’ criticism of the war on terror, said at the June 2007 Republican debate, “This is not a bumper sticker; this war is a real war.” Still, Giuliani generally now refers to “the terrorist war against us,” rather than the “war on terror,” he told TIME. But while he has changed the term to refer to U.S. efforts to combat terrorism, his policies on Iraq, Afghanistan, homeland security, and U.S. defense policy in general do not appear to vary greatly from the Bush administration’s.

In a May 2007 Republican debate, Giuliani lashed out at Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) for claiming that U.S. policies in the Middle East provoked the 9/11 attacks.

Editor's note: Giuliani dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 31, 2008.

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Mike Huckabee
Republican Primary Candidate

Huckabee criticized Democrats like Edwards who “delusionally deny that the war in Iraq is part of the war on terror even as we fight al-Qaeda there.” He calls the war on terror “generational” and “ideological” and argues that the United States is actually “engaged in a world war.”

Editor's Note: Huckabee withdrew his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on March 4, 2008.

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Duncan Hunter
Republican Primary Candidate

Like Huckabee, Rep. Hunter (R-CA) appears to have no qualms with the war on terror as a policy.

He fully supports the Bush agenda in Iraq and stresses the importance of border security in the fight against terrorists.

Editor's note: Hunter dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 19, 2008.

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Ron Paul
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Paul (R-TX) is strictly non-interventionist and criticizes military campaigns in Afghanistan—where he says the United States replaced "one group of thugs with another"—and in Iraq. He also has opposed many homeland security measures taken in the name of the war on terror, like the implementation of the PATRIOT Act, which he argues undermines "the liberties and privacy of all Americans."

Charles Peña, author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism, is an adviser to Paul's campaign. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute, and an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project.

Editor's Note: Rep. Paul withdrew his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on June 12, 2008.

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Mitt Romney
Republican Primary Candidate

Romney appears to support the idea that the United States is engaged in a global war against terrorism and "the jihadists." In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Romney wrote that U.S. center of attention should not be limited to Iraq and Afghanistan because "the jihad is much broader than any one nation, or even several nations." For this reason, Romney writes, any anti-terror efforts must focus more broadly on preventing "radical Islam" from attaining its ultimate goal, which he says is "to replace all modern Islamic states with a worldwide caliphate while destroying the United States and converting all nonbelievers, forcibly if necessary, to Islam."

Editor's note: Romney dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on February 7, 2008.

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Tom Tancredo
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Tancredo (R-CO) echoes many of Romney’s views on fighting terrorism. He stresses that the war is not limited to the countries where the United States is engaged militarily, but rather that the struggle is against “radical Islam” as a whole, which he calls a “civilization bent on destroying ours.”

Editor's Note: Congressman Tancredo formally withdrew his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination on December 20, 2007.

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Tommy Thompson
Republican Primary Candidate

Like most of his fellow Republican candidates, Thompson does not appear to agree with the criticisms of the war on terror from Democrats like Edwards and Biden.

To win the war on terror, Thompson says, the United States must “rebuild our military,” use medical diplomacy to gain allies, and follow his “three-step plan” for Iraq, which includes allowing the Iraqi parliament to vote on whether the United States should remain there. 

Editor's note: Thompson dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on August 12, 2007.

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