In few areas does the president have more discretion or power than in his duties as commander-in-chief. In this election, voters will have to decide between the views of President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney on American foreign policy, and particularly on the United States’ future involvement in Afghanistan. With the economy still in a recession, this issue has lost importance in recent years, but only by fully understanding the candidates’ positions can voters make an informed decision that will influence America’s role on the world stage.

Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, then-President George W. Bush authorized the U.S. military to invade Afghanistan with the goal of eliminating Al Qaeda, the terrorist organization responsible for 9/11, and removing the Taliban regime from power. In 2003, the United States also invaded Iraq with the goal of removing Iraqi president Saddam Hussein from power under the assumption that Hussein was supporting terrorism and developing weapons of mass destruction. This second military operation took the focus off of Afghanistan, and in the lead-up to the 2006 congressional elections Democratic candidates successfully used the increasingly unpopular foreign wars to propel the party back  into control of Congress. In 2008 Democrats built on their momentum from 2006 and assembled larger majorities in Congress, while President Barack Obama won the White House.

During the Obama administration, the War in Afghanistan came back to the forefront of foreign policy. President Obama argued that the War in Iraq was waged on false pretenses and that decreasing the risk of terrorism through the conflict in Afghanistan required the full attention of the military. Throughout 2010, Mr. Obama authorized an increase of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan to assist with combat missions, known in the media as “the surge.” In part because of the success of this increase, and in part because of swelling public sentiment against the war, beginning in 2011 the surge troops were slowly removed from Afghanistan. Not long after the beginning of this drawdown, Mr. Obama announced a planned end to combat missions in Afghanistan at the end of 2014.


The 2012 campaign will inevitably focus on the struggling economy, but considering the influence the president has over foreign policy, it is important for voters to consider the candidates’ different visions for Afghanistan. The war has already cost the lives of at least 15,000 troops, almost 2,000 of them   American, and approximately 15,000 Afghan civilians, as well as uncounted enemy combatants. Financially, the war has cost the United States over $500. But supporters of the war argue that these costs are necessary to establish democracy and security in Afghanistan, as well as to keep the United States safe from future terrorist attacks. Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney weigh these problems differently, and depending on which candidate is successful in November, the American people could witness two very different paths.

Mr. Obama’s policy in Afghanistan is a combination of the campaign rhetoric that brought Democrats back into power in 2006 and his own larger vision of America’s role abroad. While many argued for an immediate exit from the country, the current administration believes that only by providing a clear timetable for withdrawal can the U.S. maintain domestic support for the mission and apply the appropriate pressure on the Afghan government to provide for their own security.  According to his campaign website, Mr. Obama believes that only by forcing Afghanistan to “take ownership of the security and leadership of their country,” will long- term stability in the region be possible, but that goal would be impossible without short-term military assistance. This long-term strategy is also a function of the growing costs of the conflict, with a financial burden of $6.7 billion a month, and casualties exceeding 2,000 U.S. soldiers since the 2001 invasion. In that vein, the president has continued to support slowly drawing down troop levels beginning in 2012, ending combat missions and transferring authority to the Afghan Security Forces by 2014.

Governor Romney, in contrast, believes that the removal of troops after the 2010 surge was premature. General David Petraeus, who led the Afghanistan mission during the surge and now serves as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, agrees with this criticism. Mr. Romney argues that by supporting a timetable for withdrawal, the United States will only encourage “the Taliban to believe that they could wait us out,” as stated on his campaign website. According to Mr. Romney, Mr. Obama’s plan lacks military rationale and comes across as an overly political, election-year ploy. By contrast, Mr. Romney asserts that he would use the advice of his generals and the reports on ground conditions to determine when troop withdrawal would be appropriate. This policy acknowledges the costs of the war, but places greater importance on national security and the democratic stability of Afghanistan.

Mr. Romney believes that the United States has both a right and an obligation to stabilize foreign regimes that may pose a risk to the United States. In other words, because the United States helped establish this new government, the country has a responsibility to help rebuild Afghanistan. Considering the staggering costs and growing public discontent with the wars, Romney will have to offer a solid defense of these positions during the debates.


-This article was written by Shawn Patterson and appears in full in The IDEA Guide to the 2012 U.S. Presidential Elections.