Candidates MIA on war plans

At Dover Air Force Base in Delaware Saturday, an Army team carries the remains of Sgt. Jason M. Swindle, of Arkansas, who died of injuries sustained Thursday in Afghanistan.
At Dover Air Force Base in Delaware Saturday, an Army team carries the remains of Sgt. Jason M. Swindle, of Arkansas, who died of injuries sustained Thursday in Afghanistan. (STEVE RUARK / Associated Press)
Posted: September 26, 2012

By David D. Foster

The war in Afghanistan is lost. Not in the military sense of winning versus losing. The war is lost in that it is missing - indefensibly absent from the debate surrounding the election for our new commander in chief.

Under the current plan, there are 28 months of combat remaining-nearly 10 times the length of the Gulf War and more than half the total duration of World War II. As a nation we have been lulled into believing that the tough decisions have already been made and that we are on a two-year glide path to the end of the war.

That is simply not the case.

Hard decisions remain, troops will continue to sacrifice at our behest, and with less than six weeks until we choose our next wartime president, both candidates owe a clearly articulated mission and strategy for the way ahead.

In accepting his party's nomination, Mitt Romney failed to even mention the word Afghanistan once. I recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, and I understand how discouraging this omission is to the men and women in uniform. While many have taken Romney to task for not recognizing the sacrifice of our troops, more important is his apparent lack of a clear plan and strategy for the prosecution of the war.

Romney's official position is that he will take the advice of military leaders, and look to draw down the war as quickly as he can, contingent upon "conditions on the ground." This is a punt, not a strategy. We should expect more from a man auditioning to be the next commander in chief during the middle of a war.

President Obama has been better, but not good enough. He has offered a broad strategic outline for the coming two years and a date certain for the end of combat operations. However, the president, too, has avoided many of the hard questions about the nature, duration, and resourcing of the mission.

There are at least three headline questions that both candidates need to address:

What are the defined objectives for the next two years? Both candidates agree on our overall mission: deny safe haven to terrorists and prevent the Taliban from overthrowing the Afghan government.

The president has issued a general strategy to strengthen Afghan forces, place them in the lead, and then support them with U.S troops through the end of 2014. Romney pledges to be responsive to the "conditions on the ground," but has not detailed what those conditions are or how he will measure success.

Recent events have caused the United States to place significant limits on its partnership with Afghan forces, calling the entire framework of the mission into question.

Given this new reality, both candidates must articulate the broad contours of our mission going forward, and both must be specific about what success looks like: What we are asking our troops to achieve and how we will know if our strategy is working.

What resources are we willing to commit? As of Sept. 30, the surge forces ordered in by the president will redeploy, and U.S. "boots on the ground" will total 68,000. However, neither candidate has touched the issue of whether this troop count will remain until the end of 2014 or if there will be incremental drawdowns along the way. How many troops and what resources we are going to dedicate over the next 28 months are questions that the president and Romney both need to answer before Election Day.

What does the post-2014 mission look like? In May, the United States and Afghanistan signed a long-term Strategic Partnership Agreement, which makes it unlikely that we will see an abrupt Iraq-like exit come Dec. 31, 2014. This means that we are likely to have tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan in 2015 and beyond.

Yet neither candidate has offered any real insight into what our enduring mission should be. What will that force look like? What will be the parameters of its mission? How will we know if the mission is succeeding? These are all open questions. Both candidates should be on the record about their approach while the voters still have a say in the matter.

Winning and losing are not concepts that will ever apply in a traditional sense to the outcome of this war, but we are headed toward a loss that is far more enduring. When our national leaders no longer feel an obligation to articulate a clear mission, purpose, and strategy, we have breached an essential bond of trust between our soldiers and our citizens.

Every day we ask our troops in Afghanistan to risk their lives for a compelling national interest. Keeping faith with those troops means demanding that our national leaders have a clearly defined strategy and are willing to commit the resources necessary for mission success.

In the six weeks between now and Election Day, both candidates need to talk directly and specifically to the American people about how they will see this war through to its end and what resources they plan to commit. Our troops must know that "no answer" is not an answer we are willing to accept.

Dave Foster is the president of an economic development company in Camden He is a Truman National Security Fellow and an Army Reservist who recently returned from a six-month tour in Afghanistan.

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