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 3:18 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Frida Ghitis says as violence claims three U.S. doctors, the temptation is to despair, but aid to Afghanistan has made it a much better place
updated 2:33 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says in California, Asian-Americans are against the use of racial criteria in public colleges.
updated 2:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Heidi Schlumpf says if the Pope did tell an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man that she could take Communion, it may signify a softening of church rules on the divorced and sacraments
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Norcross, Georgia, Chief of Police Warren Summers says the new law that allows guns in bars, churches and schools will have unintended dangerous consequences.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mel Robbins says social media is often ruled by haters, and people can be brutally honest.
updated 12:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mike Downey says the golf purists can take a hike; the game needs radical changes to win back fans and players.
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
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.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT