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 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT