Politics junkies could be forgiven for not realizing that US soldiers are still dying in Afghanistan, given how rarely the word passes the lips of either President Obama or challenger Mitt Romney.
The Afghan war made a rare appearance in the presidential campaign discourse yesterday, with both President Obama and Republican hopeful Mitt Romney forced by reporters to address a war they've been mostly ignoring on the trail.
The conflict has been grinding on in the background, costing about $5 billion a month and the lives of soldiers, with 418 US soldiers dying in Afghanistan last year, and 236 so far this year. The brief blip in interest now in Afghanistan comes thanks to a surge in so-called "green on blue" killings – Afghan soldiers and cops, armed and trained at the expense of the US taxpayer, murdering the NATO troops working with them.
Romney's and Obama's responses make clear why neither seem to want to talk about America's longest war: There is little difference between their positions on Afghanistan.
Obama and US generals will continue to speak of steady progress as they prepare to depart Afghanistan in 2014. If Mr. Romney wins the presidency, he is unlikely to extend an unpopular, but generally forgotten war. When campaigning, he's said he'd stick to the current withdrawal timeline.
Obama went first, after he made a rare appearance at a White House press briefing. He was asked what senior US officers are telling him about the propensity of Afghan troops to kill US troops.
"On Afghanistan, obviously we’ve been watching with deep concern these so-called green-on-blue attacks, where you have Afghan individuals, some of whom are actually enrolled in the Afghan military, some – in some cases dressing up as Afghan military or police, attacking coalition forces, including our own troops," Obama said. "I just spoke today to Marty Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who happens to be in Afghanistan. He is having intensive consultations not only with our commander, John Allen, on the ground, but also with Afghan counterparts. And I’ll be reaching out to President Karzai as well — because we’ve got to make sure that we’re on top of this."
Dempsey certainly has his work cut out for him. Shortly after Obama spoke, Dempsey's plane was hit by Taliban rocket fire on the tarmac at Bagram Air Field outside Kabul. That's the part of Afghanistan where the US presence is strongest, and where support for the overthrow of the Taliban in 2002 was rock solid. President Karzai? He has little practical influence over what happens in the ranks of Afghanistan's rapidly expanding but ethnically divided Army.
More than 10 years into the war, Afghan soldiers murdering NATO soldiers is a new phenomenon. Data compiled by the New America Foundation show no killings of NATO soldiers by coalition Afghan security forces until 2007, when two NATO soldiers were killed.
In 2008, the number went to zero again, rose to 10 in 2009, 20 in 2010, and then to 36 last year. So far there have been 36 such killings in 2012. Last year’s grim record will almost certainly be broken.
Yet Obama said yesterday: "We are already doing a range of things, and we’re seeing some success when it comes to better counterintelligence, making sure that the vetting process for Afghan troops is stronger."
The blood, however, points to failure in this regard.
And beyond the loss of life itself is the certain erosion of whatever trust US trainers have in their Afghan counterparts, making the whole exercise of molding an army along Western lines that much harder. The Soviet Union tried to build an Afghan national army during its failed occupation of the country, and also dealt with the problem of Afghans killing their Soviet mentors. After the Soviet withdrawal from the country, the "army" quickly splintered into its various Tajik and Pashtun and Uzbek parts, and the vicious civil war that eventually spawned the Taliban was on.
Of course, the Afghan Army is growing, and more US trainers are in constant contact with Afghan soldiers, so the opportunity for such attacks has also grown.
Romney attacked Obama yesterday for being too vague about Afghanistan, with a series of vague and platitudinous comments of his own. Asked about Afghanistan during a campaign stop in New Hampshire, Romney said:
"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. Other presidents have done this. We haven’t heard this president do this. This is something he ought to do time and time again so the people of America know where we stand.”
Actually, Obama often addresses the question of "why we're there": Defeat the Taliban, build a stable democracy, create Afghan institutions that will stand on their own when we go. He basically says about the Afghan mission what Romney said about it yesterday: "I will do everything in my power to transition from our military to their military as soon as possible, bring our men and women home and do so in a way consistent with our mission, which is to keep Afghanistan from being overrun by a new entity which would allow Afghanistan to be a launching point for terror again like it was on 9/11."
But statements of purpose don't accomplish anything on their own. And the US is rapidly coming up against the limits of its power, particularly when it comes to using the military as the agent of an experiment in revolutionary social change in foreign lands.
Should the Afghan war be a campaign issue? Of course. Will it be? Only occasionally, when a tragedy forces it onto the campaign agenda. Polling shows most Americans are fed up with the war, but that it's largely irrelevant to their voting preferences, which are driven more by their beliefs about which president will do a better job at restoring the economy to health. Fewer and fewer Americans know soldiers or Marines in harm’s way, and for many, the deaths afar are abstractions.