CQ WEEKLY – IN FOCUS
May 19, 2012 – 11:04 a.m.
Campaigns Quiet on Afghanistan
By Emily Cadei, CQ Staff
Amid all the campaign chatter about the economy, the nation’s debt, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and dogs strapped to car roofs, one subject has drawn surprisingly little attention: the Afghanistan War.
That subject is notably absent from the congressional campaign trail, even though more than 100 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan so far this year. Tens of thousands of American troops are still deployed there, and the United States is spending $300 million each day trying to kill Taliban fighters and their allies. Rarely has such an active war been so far off the national election radar.
It’s clear that Americans are tired of the decadelong conflict. A recent poll by the Associated Press and GfK Group found that just 27 percent of Americans “favor” the war in Afghanistan, while 66 percent oppose it.
U.S. policy on Afghanistan has also increasingly confounded traditional partisan divisions on defense and foreign policy, making it virtually impossible for members of or aspirants to Congress to brandish their usual go-to attack lines — that Democrats are weak on national defense and Republicans are warmongers.
With little of political value to be gained by raising the issue, candidates on both sides of the aisle are staying with tried-and-true domestic themes. With all likelihood, they’ll be able to stick to that script through November. But should violence in Afghanistan spike late in the election cycle — particularly after President Obama’s self-imposed September deadline to remove all the surge troops he sent in 2010 — congressional candidates may suddenly be forced into having a conversation with voters about the war.
When a central California newspaper, the Hanford Sentinel, did a roundup last month of where candidates for the newly created 21st congressional district stood on the issues, the editors posed questions about taxes, job creation, health care and energy. Afghanistan didn’t make the cut.
In Arkansas, two out of the three Republicans running to fill retiring Democratic Rep.
“The economy seems to be at the forefront of everybody’s mind,” says Republican Rep.
Flake is one of just a few leading Senate candidates in contested races whose campaign website lays out his position on Afghanistan in any depth, reiterating his support for military engagement and noting that he has “routinely voted against measures to precipitously withdraw forces.” Many other Senate campaign websites don’t mention the war at all.
Akin asserts there is plenty to criticize about Obama’s handling of the conflict. He says the United States needs to choose one of two policies on Afghanistan — “either execute the plan” that the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, has put together to defeat the Taliban, “or get out, not something in between.” The White House, he fears, has chosen the “in between” option.
Campaigns Quiet on Afghanistan
However, asked if that’s something on which Republican candidates can score political points, Akin replies, “In the state of Missouri, it would not be my weapon of choice.” Issues such as Obama’s health care overhaul, looming defense cuts and the Senate’s lack of a budget plan matter more to Missourians and highlight sharp distinctions with McCaskill’s record, he says. McCaskill’s campaign retorts that Akin would rather fund defense contractors than preserve student loans and key social programs.
Akin’s comments highlight a broader conundrum among Republican candidates when it comes to Afghanistan — it’s much more difficult to draw a contrast with Democrats than has typically been the case on matters of war.
The stereotype of Democratic peaceniks and pacifists doesn’t work as well when the party’s standard-bearer in the White House authorized a surge of troops in Afghanistan and last year ordered a daring commando raid that resulted in the death of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
Republicans’ hawkish go-to rhetoric on defense is also out of sync with the national mood on Afghanistan. The AP-GfK poll found that as with the rest of voters, GOP support for the war has sunk in the past year. Just 37 percent of Republicans now back the war, the poll found, down from 58 percent a year ago. For independents, the support rate is at 27 percent and for Democrats, 19 percent.
Many Missourians “aren’t necessarily saying so, but if you said, ‘Are you tired of being in Afghanistan?’ I think there are a pretty good number that would say that they are,” Akin says — including some conservatives.
The current state of play in Afghanistan also challenges the conventional Democratic narrative on the war. Liberals stoked an uproar against the Iraq War during the 2006 congressional campaign, helping Democrats to reclaim the majority in both the House and Senate. As with Afghanistan, the Iraq conflict at the time appeared to be bogged down in an endless state of guerrilla warfare with resilient insurgents. The outrage over the extended nature of the war in Afghanistan, however, has been far more muted with a Democrat in the White House.
House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat
Berman’s response illustrates the tempered way many Democrats in Congress are handling the disapproval of the war within their base. He tells voters about the president’s policy for winding down the war and then, “I talk about my reservations about how this is going to work.”
Obama helped ease the pressure from the left further with his actions this year to speed up the transition from U.S. to Afghan military control and to sign a strategic partnership agreement with the Afghan government, establishing the framework for that transition.
Still, as Senate Foreign Relations Chairman
However, he warns, “I think you’ve got big hurdles still to get over,” pointing to Afghanistan’s governance challenges, the difficulty fighting an insurgency based in Pakistan and planning for Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential election. “Right now the transition is taking place, things are very positive, but there’s a lot of ground still to cover.”
The developments of the past few months, including the May 20-21 NATO summit in Chicago, have started to lay out the U.S. path for a slow but inexorable end to the war in Afghanistan, observers say. And given the political trends, lawmakers are not strongly inclined to quibble with the general outlines of that plan. As Flake says, “It looks to be that our path is pretty much set there.” Events on the ground, however, could change that calculus. The last of the 30,000 surge troops in Afghanistan are scheduled to come home by September, leaving approximately 68,000 still there. If the Taliban manages to pull off a few splashy terrorist attacks or the American body count starts going up, that could sound alarms on both ends of the war debate.
Campaigns Quiet on Afghanistan
GOP critics who think the administration should keep more combat troops on the ground through 2013 could accuse the president and Democrats of retreating and losing the war. When it comes to Afghanistan, says South Carolina Republican Sen.
“We’re going to leave,” Graham acknowledges. “It’s how we leave. Do we leave based on a poll or a politician’s view of the next election cycle, or do we withdraw based on sound military advice?”
Proponents of the drawdown, meanwhile, could seize on renewed violence to support their calls for a faster withdrawal from what they see as a bloody and pointless war.
For the vast majority of congressional candidates content to avoid the issue, an October surprise of that sort in Afghanistan would be most unwelcome, because it could force them to take a position on an issue where there is no clear politically advantageous position.
At a House Rules Committee hearing last week on the fiscal 2013 Defense authorization bill, Democrat
Eugene Mulero contributed to this story.
FOR FURTHER READING: Fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill (