Last night Martha Raddatz broke the media's code of silence and revealed to the American people that there is a country called Afghanistan, that American troops are there, and that we are at war. This shocking betrayal of omerta temporarily ruffled the presidential race as it forced Vice President Joe Biden and Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan to acknowledge these heretofore unspoken realities. In the epic two-year race for president, the candidates -- no, their seconds -- were forced to spend an entire ten minutes talking about it. How did they fare?
Ryan gave one of the clearest and most thoughtful comments on Afghanistan that I've heard from any American politician from either party in years (admittedly, that is a low bar). He made clear that the Romney/Ryan ticket is committed to a successful transition to Afghan leadership. It is remarkable for its moderation; for the fact that Ryan thinks and speaks in whole, complete sentences; and for its acknowledgment of the importance of finishing the job. It is worth quoting at length (Politico has a transcript).
We don't want to lose the gains we've gotten. We want to make sure that the Taliban does not come back in and give Al Qaida a safe haven. We agree with the administration on their 2014 transition...What we don't want to do is lose the gains we've gotten. Now, we've disagreed from time to time on a few issues. We would have more likely taken into accounts the recommendations from our commanders, General Petraeus, Admiral Mullen, on troop levels throughout this year's fighting season. We've been skeptical about negotiations with the Taliban, especially while they're shooting at us. But we want to see the 2014 transition be successful, and that means we want to make sure our commanders have what they need to make sure that it is successful so that this does not once again become a launching pad for terrorists.
By contrast, Joe Biden said:
But we are leaving. We are leaving in 2014. Period. And in the process, we're going to be saving over the next 10 years another $800 billion. We've been in this war for over a decade. The primary objective is almost completed. Now, all we're doing is putting the Kabul government in a position to be able to maintain their own security. It's their responsibility, not America's.
Biden appeared to go rogue on foreign policy. The position he outlined last night -- a complete withdrawal of all troops by 2014 -- is not the Obama administration's position, at least not its public position. President Obama has committed to an enduring international military presence beyond 2014. At the very least, it will include continued training for the Afghan army and police and an American counterterrorism capability. At the NATO Summit in Chicago earlier this year, ISAF's Declaration on Afghanistan promised NATO support to Afghanistan "up to 2014 and beyond," and promised to establish "a new training, advising and assistance mission." In the new U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement, signed in May 2012, Afghanistan agreed to "provide U.S. forces continued access to and use of Afghan facilities through 2014, and beyond as may be agreed...for the purposes of combating al-Qaeda and its affiliates."
The post-2014 mission could easily require more than 20,000 - 25,000 troops to remain in Afghanistan. Because media outlets regularly report 2014 as a "withdrawal" deadline instead of a transition deadline, it will take Americans by surprise that this is already U.S. policy. In the absence of any decisions to the contrary, bureaucratic inertia will leave tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan well beyond 2014. Biden is either unaware of this, or unwilling to acknowledge it. And (hat tip to The Cable), he also misstated the administration's view on the war's basic purpose and goals.
Biden's comments give credence to conservatives' fears that the Obama administration is being disingenuous about its true policy; that it has no real plans to leave a stay-behind force in Afghanistan after 2014 and is only lip-synching the responsible rhetoric to keep things calm while they hasten to withdraw. That's essentially what they did on Iraq. Ryan could have highlighted the botched efforts to get a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq and the deteriorating security there as a result, and warned the same thing may happen in Afghanistan if Obama/Biden is left in charge for another four years. He didn't, but the Romney campaign could take up that critique in coming days. If you liked Afghanistan before 2001, or if you think Iraq today is a good model for post-2014 Afghanistan, then you'll love what a second Obama term will bring us.