Foreign Policy and the 2010 Midterms: War in Afghanistan

Foreign Policy and the 2010 Midterms: War in Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan hasn’t been a major campaign issue even as public support for it has waned. This Backgrounder examines political backing for the war.

October 27, 2010 3:17 pm (EST)

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Editor’s Note: This is part of a series on the foreign policy implications of the 2010 midterm elections.

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According to the most recent polls (NYT), the war in Afghanistan is barely on the radar in the upcoming midterm elections, as the economy and jobs dominate voters’ concerns. Moreover, Americans are growing war-weary, and public support for the war is waning (CNN). An increasing number of Americans are questioning U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, and it has become a controversial issue in Congress, with President Barack Obama fielding criticism from both sides of the aisle. Both Democrats and Republicans are concerned about civilian aid to the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, which is seen as highly corrupt. Many Democrats on the left question the president’s 2009 decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. While most Republicans support the war, many criticize his July 2011 drawdown date for U.S. troops. They argue setting a deadline sends the wrong signals to U.S. partners in the region who question Washington’s commitment, and strengthens insurgents who will then simply wait for U.S. forces to leave. Regardless of which party gains control of Congress on November 2, "political support for the war depends powerfully on whether it looks like the war is succeeding or failing," says Stephen Biddle, CFR’s senior fellow for defense policy.

Doubts over the Mission

Soon after taking office, President Obama ordered a review of the war strategy and announced plans to send seventeen thousand additional troops to Afghanistan to fight a resurgent Taliban. Following a sixty-day interagency review, he unveiled his new strategy in March 2009. It included dismantling terrorist havens in Pakistan--seen as central to success in Afghanistan--and promoting an effective, accountable Afghan government and a self-reliant Afghan national security force.

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Timeline: U.S. War in Afghanistan In response to the military’s request for further escalation of the war in late 2009, following a protracted review, Obama committed an additional thirty thousand troops and, in response to a growing anti-war flank among Democrats, set July 2011 as the start date for troop drawdown. The troop surge was seen by many as a compromise between the military’s demand for an additional forty thousand troops and Vice President Joseph Biden’s efforts to limit the escalation. Journalist Bob Woodward’s recent book Obama’s Wars describes the deep divisions (WashPost) in the White House over almost all aspects of the Afghanistan strategy: its direction, goals, timetable, troop levels, and chances of success. It also looks at how Obama’s focus on an exit strategy put him at odds with the country’s military commanders.

Afghanistan has not been discussed much on the campaign trail. Democrats are silent because many oppose the war but don’t want to run on an anti-Obama platform, while most Republicans support the war but now find themselves uncomfortably aligned (NYT) with a Democratic president they oppose on most issues. Tea Party candidates are silent on the issue because they’re split on it, given the diverse makeup of the movement from hardcore Libertarians who oppose the war to the more conservative Republicans who support it, says CFR’s Biddle.

Only a few candidates have made Afghanistan a campaign issue. In Missouri, Iraq war veteran Tommy Sowers, a Democrat running for the House, has called for an end to the war. Retired Army colonel Chris Gibson, a Republican from the Albany area, has advocated against withdrawal timelines. He has also called for a reform of NATO’s rules of engagement (NYPost) that were put in place to avoid civilian casualties. He says they offer advantage to insurgents in close-quarter combat.

Funding the War

The mounting federal deficit and pressure to bring down the national debt have led to increased questions about defense spending. Financial Services Chairman Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) and fifty-six other congressional members recently sent a letter (PDF) to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform advocating defense cuts. Analysts say lawmakers will be forced to choose next year between defense spending and cuts to entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

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Lawmakers from both parties in Congress have been increasingly leery of channeling civilian aid to Afghanistan in the wake of growing reports of corruption and lack of accountability of the Afghan government.

But with Republicans likely to gain in the midterm elections, support and funding for the war could be enhanced. CFR’s Max Boot says, "If you have more Republicans, presumably that will mean more support for the war effort, which is a good thing." He believes big Republican gains will also signal "American seriousness and commitment," to Pakistan and Afghanistan, "which will be helpful." But Biddle cautions that the effects of a Republican win may be a bit more complicated. He says while the Democratic Party may have fewer representatives in the next Congress, it is likely they will be "ideologically more homogeneous and shifted somewhat leftward." Plus, "if the war is not looking good in the next presidential election cycle, there’s a distinct chance that the Republican Party will split on the war, and what looks like solid Republican support today may not be there in the election after this one."

Corruption and Oversight Concerns

Lawmakers from both parties have been increasingly leery of channeling civilian aid to Afghanistan in the wake of growing reports of corruption and lack of accountability in the Afghan government. A September 2010 White House report to Congress notes "accountability, particularly with regard to corruption, remains a grave and increasing concern" and the "Afghan government has not taken significant steps to strengthen anti-corruption institutions."

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The Senate appropriations committee in June recommended $2.6 billion in assistance to Afghanistan as part of the fiscal 2011 State-Foreign Operations spending bill, a significant reduction from the $4 billion requested by the Obama administration. Moreover, Nita M. Lowey (D-NY) chair of the House State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee and favored to win her House race, has threatened to withhold $3.9 billion in non-humanitarian civilian aid (WashPost) to Afghanistan pending further investigation of charges that large amounts of aid money have been siphoned off by Afghan officials.

After the midterm elections, the pressure on civilian aid programs is likely to increase, reports Congressional Quarterly. It quotes Kay Granger (R-TX), who could end up chairing the State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee if the GOP takes the House, as saying any additional cuts in Afghanistan would come "on the civilian side" given the party’s traditional emphasis on military might rather than "soft power."

Some experts say congressional actions to target corruption in Afghanistan may end up being counterproductive by alienating the power structure the United States depends upon there. Michael O’ Hanlon, an Afghanistan expert at Brookings Institution, and Colonel Gregory Douquet write in the National Interest that the U.S. anticorruption efforts in Afghanistan should be "less bilateral, less absolutist, more informed by successful efforts from around the world, and more frequently framed in the language of improving governance rather than punishing criminal actors."

On the security side, members of Congress have concerns about outsourcing to private contractors and insufficient oversight of their work. In an October 2010 report looking into oversight issues of private security contractors used by the U.S. Defense Department, the Senate Armed Services Committee concluded that U.S. taxpayer money was undermining U.S. operations in Afghanistan. The bipartisan report, the result of a year-long investigation, notes how funds for private contractors were sometimes funneled to warlords linked to the Taliban as well as incidents of murder and kidnapping.

The Department of Defense has set up two task forces to look into allegations of misconduct and to track the money spent, particularly among lower-level subcontractors. Defense Secretary Robert Gates outlines other actions being taken in this letter (PDF) to committee chairman Senator Carl Levin (D-MI). In addition to these efforts by the Defense Department, O’ Hanlon writes in Foreign Affairs "the U.S. Congress could allow more flexibility in the application of U.S. contracting procedures in war zones, so that the military could reduce its complete dependence" on syndicates run by powerful local families.

The Pakistan Question

Pakistan has become central to success of the war effort in Afghanistan and therefore has garnered growing congressional attention. Recognizing that Washington needed a much broader relationship with Pakistan after focusing heavily on its military-to-military relationship since 9/11, Congress in 2009 approved $7.5 billion in nonmilitary aid over five years that included focus on strengthening the country’s economy, as well as civilian and democratic institutions. But since then, doubts in Congress have grown over the country’s counterterrorism efforts and its military’s continued support for militant groups targeting U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has surpassed Vietnam and become the United States’ longest war. War spending on Afghanistan for FY2010 is $104.9 billion.

Last month, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Idaho Republican Jim Risch commented that Pakistanis did not seem to appreciate that the United States was devoting billions in aid in the midst of its own financial crisis. "This government’s going to borrow 41 cents out of every dollar (Reuters) it spends this year," he said, adding "this is a real sacrifice Americans are making, and they’re sacrificing their children’s and grandchildren’s future in order to build infrastructure in Pakistan." Some experts like Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argue that Washington should make U.S. aid to Pakistan conditional on Islamabad’s meeting certain counterterrorism benchmarks.

The Road Ahead

Afghanistan has surpassed Vietnam and become the United States’ longest war. War spending on Afghanistan for FY2010 is $104.9 billion (PDF). Obama has tripled both U.S. troops and civilian presence on the ground, and his administration gave $4 billion (PDF) in total foreign aid to the country in FY2010.

Whatever the election outcome, the political infighting will continue as the administration is set for another review of its Afghanistan strategy in December. The review is expected to look at the overall military progress in Afghanistan and steps taken toward more effective governance there. While Defense Secretary Gates has said he does not expect (ABC News) any major changes to the current strategy, some analysts say it might present an opportunity for opponents to rehash some of the controversial issues (Politico) such as troop surge and timetable for withdrawal. "Details aside, the devastating truth is that U.S. forces will be fighting in Afghanistan for at least four more years (Daily Beast)," writes Leslie Gelb, CFR’s president emeritus. This might make many Democrats unhappy, but Gelb says it could offer a breather to Obama "because it takes him beyond the next presidential election without his being accused of cutting and running." It might also please General David Petraeus, NATO commander in Afghanistan, by giving him extra time to "prove that his counterinsurgency strategy can work in Afghanistan as it did in Iraq."


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