It stands to reason, in a politician's mind, that if you're going to lie about one war, you might as well lie about another.
Building on the pseudo momentum that President Barack Obama's campaign has created on foreign policy front - typical examples of stagecraft over statecraft - the White House wasted no time assailing presidential candidate Mitt Romney for excluding Afghanistan's war from his GOP nomination speech. The wave started to build after Thursday as the White House leapt on the error, but has since assumed a monstrous form that is almost certain to dominate Obama's own foreign policy statements at the Democratic National Convention.
“Gov. Romney had nothing to say about Afghanistan last week,” Obama told a weekend audience at Morningside College. “Didn’t mention it. Didn’t offer a plan in terms of how me might end the war or, if he’s not going to end it, he’s got to let people know.”
Some translation of this line is now absorbed into the bottom of Obama's campaign speech, and it could stick there all the way to November. Ironically, as he toils at his campaign's message on Labor Day, Obama has spent most of his term staying far away from Afghanistan's "right war." The White House probably wouldn't be taking the offensive if Romney didn't drop the war from his speech, opening a perfect opportunity for the DNC and the campaign's overall narrative in Afghanistan. Viewing the issue as too unpopular and politically irrelevant to focus on, Obama and his circle have consistently minimized the war as much as possible during every major address. Now the administration is pouncing on Romney's campaign fodder, judging the reward above the risk of highlighting an ailing war.
"I put forward a specific plan to bring our troops home from Afghanistan by the end of 2014," he said from Sioux City, Iowa. "We are in the process of doing that right now. And when I say I'm going to bring them home, you know they're going to come home."
This risk is currently being tamped down by a stalwart defense: specifically "breaking the Taliban's momentum." Even when conceding the possibly that the insurgency's past momentum has been halted, the situation isn't nearly as comforting as U.S. officials argue. The Taliban remains a potent guerrilla force of 17,000-22,000 full and part-time fighters (according to the Pentagon's own estimate), has diversified its network of networks across the region and will remain combat effective long after 2014. The insurgency was also wise to forfeit territory rather than confront superior-armed troops, and instead employ unconventional tactics in order to create friction between Kabul, Afghans, foreign capitals and their voters. Perhaps most importantly, given the significance of foreign sanctuaries in COIN, neither Washington nor Islamabad possess the capabilities to shut down Pakistan's havens.
Generally speaking, stalemate often equates to defeat for the stronger force and victory for the weaker. In fact the bulk of Obama's statements are directed towards leaving, a defeatist position masked by the implication of progress. Then again, stalemate may be all that NATO can aspire to at this point in a long, misguided war.
Another defense comes in the form of Romney's "endless war." The GOP candidate likely takes a more hawkish view of troop levels and their deployments, but Romney's plan probably isn't significantly longer than the present administration's long-term strategy. Yet the campaign has now established Romney's lack of definition opposite of Obama's withdrawal time-line, casting a stark black and white impression on the American populace. Despite criticizing Romney's ambiguity and touting his own "specific" plan, Obama's has yet to announce a withdrawal schedule for the remaining 66,000 troops that will still be fighting in 2013. Negotiations with the Taliban remain obscured by a thick fog that has more to do with their implausibility than diplomatic protocol in warfare; both parties are unwilling to accept the other's fundamental demands, ensuring the war's continuation after 2014.
Thus Obama has no choice except to resort to outright lies: "We are bringing our troops home from Afghanistan. And I've set a timetable. We will have them all out of there by 2014."
Only time and Afghanistan's next government will decide the fate of a US "residual force" in Afghanistan, but available evidence points to the affirmative. If all U.S. troops - pilots and Special Forces trainers/commandos - are evicted by December 2014, the decision will grate against Washington's desire for a long-term presence. On some level the administration must realize that Afghanistan will exceed Iraq's ongoing instability, a factor that appears to be driving the urgency behind Kabul's residual force. However Obama's eagerness to stretch the truth demonstrates how susceptible he is to playing politics with insurgency - a violation of COIN.
As a result of this obsession with point scoring, Obama may have already put undue stress on the campaign by appealing to the Taliban's propaganda machine. NATO officials are spending their energy warning the insurgents that they cannot out-wait the coalition, yet the President of America is now offering up a golden platter to feast from. The Taliban can't wait for the day that American troops are left alone in Afghanistan or when they've vacated the country, for this will be the day that their territorial ambitions spring back into life.
Unfortunately Romney's campaign is too inept and ill-positioned to counter with these observations and trigger a real debate on Afghanistan - something this country sorely needs!