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The third debate and the nagging Afghan-Pakistan question

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney finally discussed the war in Afghanistan during the third debate on US foreign affairs. EPA/Michael Reynolds

For a war that has gone on for more than a decade, cost the American taxpayer some US$500 billion, claimed the lives of more than two thousand GIs and inflicted many more thousands of wounded, the conflict in Afghanistan has barely got any mention during the presidential campaign.

That’s probably because this whole military experiment has not gone as planned. Neither of the two candidates has much to gain by talking about it too much.

President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney could not avoid discussing it during the third presidential debate yesterday. But as expected, there were no surprises, only repeats of previously stated positions, and most of them pretty vague at that.

So what are the differences between the two candidates on the Afghan war and its spill-over into Pakistan? On the whole, there is very little differentiation between the two on these issues; only nuances and shades of differences really separate them.

The war in Afghanistan

Turning to Afghanistan, Obama has made clear that all combat troops will be out by the end of 2014 and that only a residual force, probably around 25,000 troops, will be left behind to assist the Afghan forces with special counter-terrorism operations and military training.

While the US administration has repeatedly stated that the “US will stay the course with Afghanistan”, it has no intention of staying one day longer than is necessary. Obama knows only too well that the American public no longer has any appetite for this war, if it ever did. And now that Osama bin Laden is dead, many wonder why US troops are still there. In a very significant development reflecting that mood change, ten days ago The New York Times published an editorial, Time To Pack Up, which strongly urged the US to leave Afghanistan as soon as safely possible. Washington policy-makers should ignore this advice at their political peril.

Barack Obama addresses US troops on a visit to Kabul earlier this year. EPA/Kevin Lamarque

Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stress that the transition for handing over the security of the country to the Afghan army is on track. But anyone who knows anything about the situation on the ground in Afghanistan would strongly dispute this.

Most analysts agree that the Afghan army would probably not be able to stand up to sustained Taliban attacks post-2014. In such a situation the Kabul government would quickly fall. However, even with the strategic agreement signed between the US and Afghanistan, the Obama administration would almost certainly not send troops back into Afghanistan to save the Afghan government. Nor would a Romney administration.

During the debate, Governor Romney gave his full support to President Obama’s decision to withdraw the troops in 2014, even though he had recently questioned the timing of that departure. He also agreed with the administration’s line that the transition for the Afghan security forces to take over was all on track. Romney clearly saw no benefit in having a public disagreement with Obama over Afghanistan.

The Pakistan angle

One of the crucial military tools that the Obama administration has used to hunt and kill the Taliban and their ideological travellers has been the un-manned drones, especially in the Afghan-Pakistan border area.

Protestors in Kabul burn an effigy of President Obama over drone strikes that have killed scores of Afghan civilians. EPA/S. Sabawoon

While drones have indeed been very effective in eliminating terrorists, these strikes have also led to the death of many Pakistani civilians. These drone strikes have probably been the single most important factor in fuelling the rampant anti-Americanism in Pakistan. Nevertheless, the Obama administration has made it very clear to Pakistan that it has no intention to end these drone strikes soon.

Romney has commended Obama for using drones, and during the debate he confirmed he would continue using them were he to become president.

But in an odd statement during one of the earlier Republican presidential debates in November 2011, and confirming his lack of knowledge of international affairs, Romney stated that Pakistan was comfortable with the drone strikes. I suspect Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari may disagree with Romney’s assessment.

In the debate, Governor Romney stated that although Pakistan did not act like an ally, it was critical for the US and the world not “to divorce” its ally and to instead help it domestically. He stressed that it was essential to avoid Pakistan’s instability from spilling over into a weak Afghanistan. Still, it wasn’t clear how he was going to go about doing that.

So on the basis of this last debate, which on the whole confirmed the candidates’ similar views on the questions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, it would seem that an Obama or a Romney administration would continue the same policy that has been implemented for the last four years.

This means another $US200 billion will be spent on the war in Afghanistan, there will more coalition casualties and more drone strikes over Pakistan in the lead up to 2014.

What happens after that is anyone’s guess.

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