President Obama and Mitt Romney made rare public statements Monday about the war in Afghanistan, underscoring how little attention has been paid to the conflict in the race for the White House.
Neither Obama nor Romney stands much to gain talking about the war in Afghanistan, despite an uptick in violence against U.S. forces. The war is unpopular with the public, and the two candidates’ positions on withdrawal are similar.
While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were major issues in the last two presidential contests, Afghanistan and other national-security issues are playing second fiddle to the economy, healthcare and jobs in 2012.
“We ought to be talking about it, and it’s unfortunate that we’re not,” said Larry Korb, a former Pentagon official and defense analyst at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress.
Seven NATO troops and four Afghans were also killed last week when a helicopter crashed in southern Afghanistan.
But the casualties haven’t pushed Afghanistan back to the forefront. Media attention has been so scarce that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta felt the need to point out that the country is still at war.
“I realize that there are a lot of other things going on in this country that can draw our attention, from the Olympics to political campaigns to droughts to some of the tragedies we've seen in communities around the country,” Panetta said last week at a Pentagon press briefing.
“But I thought it was important to remind the American people that there is a war going on in Afghanistan and that young men and women are dying in order to try to protect this country.”
Obama mentions Afghanistan in his speeches by focusing on the end of the war, saying that under his watch U.S. troops have left Iraq and are leaving Afghanistan. But he rarely gets into the details, and hasn’t laid out his plans for how the 68,000 U.S. troops that will remain after 2012 will be phased out over the following two years.
The president was asked specifically about the green-on-blue attacks on Monday, and said the administration is “deeply concerned about this from top to bottom.”
“Obviously, we're going to have to do more, because there has been an uptick over the last 12 months on this,” Obama said.
For Romney, the politics of Afghanistan are muddled. Polls have shown the public favors a quicker withdrawal than even Obama’s plan to hand over security control in 2014.
He has said that he would listen to the generals on drawing down troops, but also favors the 2014 withdrawal date.
On Monday, Romney challenged Obama on the war at a New Hampshire town hall after a veteran asked him, “What are you going to do about this damn mess in Afghanistan?”
“When our men and women are in harm's way, I expect the president of the United States to address the nation on a regular basis and explain what's happening and why they're there, what the mission is, what its purpose is, how we'll know when it's completed,” Romney responded. “Other presidents have done this. We haven't heard this president do this.”
Romney’s comments led to sniping between the two campaigns that was heavy on rhetoric and light on substance.
The Obama campaign quickly shot back that said Romney has “refused to put forth a plan for what he would do in Afghanistan.”
“If he does have some secret plan, he owes it to our men and women in uniform to tell them,” said Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith. “The president has repeatedly outlined a specific plan for how we are going to bring our troops home responsibly and end the war by the end of 2014.”
Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul responded by saying that “if we did have a so-called ‘secret plan,’ the Obama administration would just leak it,” referring to the national-security leaks that have dogged the White House
“Gov. Romney has described his strategy to ensure a successful transition in Afghanistan, one that rejects President Obama's practice of ignoring military commanders' advice and making decisions based on politics,” Saul said.
While there are still many details unresolved between the United States and Afghanistan about drawing down the war, both Obama and Romney back the agreed-upon plan to transfer control of security to the Afghans in 2014 and leave a small U.S. presence there for training and special operations.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) told The Hill that Obama has more of a responsibility to talk about the war, since he occupies the Oval Office.
“He is not the commander in chief,” McKeon said of Romney. “I’m sorry to say, this should not be part of the campaign. This is [Obama’s] job as commander in chief … He’s so busy campaigning he’s just walked away from running the country.”
The most likely venue for the two candidates to get into some specifics on the Afghan war is during the foreign-policy debate in October.
“I sure hope it’s part of the debate, because I think everybody should know what Gov. Romney will do about that, and they should have a chance to know what the commander in chief isn’t doing about that,” McKeon said.
Korb, who was an assistant secretary of Defense under President Reagan, said the lack of talk about Afghanistan and other foreign-policy issues is ironic because that’s where a president typically has the most latitude in office. He cited Obama’s action in Libya, which was undertaken without approval from Congress.
“The man who becomes president, that person is not going to be able to do much in domestic [issues],” Korb said. “There are very few checks [on national-security matters], but we’re not focusing on it."