This is part of a series on foreign policy issues Christiane Amanpour is analyzing in the-lead up to next week’s presidential debate on foreign affairs.
By Christiane Amanpour, CNN & ABC
After 9/11, Afghanistan truly was a “War of Necessity”. There was an unusual consensus, not just among the U.S. and NATO powers, but in many parts of the world, including in Iran and other Muslim countries, that Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and the Taliban who hosted them had to be defeated.
And after they were sent packing from the Afghan battlefield, an extraordinary thing happened. The Afghan people supported the intervention. The land known as the Graveyard of Empires welcomed the new “invaders.” They knew that they had not come to occupy or do harm, but to help achieve a better future after decades of non-stop war and wholesale devastation – not only of infrastructure and institutions, but also the most basic human rights and freedoms.
As the Taliban were forced out of Kabul in November 2001, Afghan men, as well as women and children, voted with their feet. They marched to demand equal education rights for all, including girls, and thus for a more progressive future than the medieval reality the Taliban and the other Mujaheddin fighters had inflicted on them.
Suddenly the head of the international forces was the new Afghan hero. For a precious couple of years, most of the important indicators –like corruption, child mortality, education and poverty – were heading in a rare upward the right direction. This rare time of hope lasted until President George W. Bush decided to fight a “War of Choice” in Iraq.
The best military minds and commanders, the best resources and attention were suddenly diverted to Iraq, and Afghanistan paid the price. As the Taliban ramped up their presence and their insurgency again, civilians were killed, international forces too, and slowly but surely Afghanistan descended into war again. The once-in-a-generation chance to put back the pieces of this vital Muslim country seems to be slipping away.
Will the presidential election make a difference?
Not much. Both President Barack Obama and challenger Governor Mitt Romney are now committed to ending the war and withdrawing by the end of 2014.
When he came into office, President Obama, tried to reverse the tide of war and leave Afghanistan in a position of greater strength by ordering a surge of 30,000 U.S. troops in December 2009. At its peak, there were about 100,000 U.S. forces in the embattled country.
But now, in an election year, with a weak U.S. economic recovery and with the American people tired of war, all 30,000 of the surge troops came home by the end of September.
In a visit to Afghanistan in May, Obama said, "We are pursuing a negotiated peace. In coordination with the Afghan government, my administration has been in direct discussions with the Taliban.”
These talks have so far gone nowhere.
In the vice presidential debates last week, Vice President Biden said, “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 practically washed the U.S. hands of what happens next in Afghanistan. And the objectives he says are almost completed? Not exactly. Many Afghans fear that the moment international forces leave all will be lost in Afghanistan.
Obama’s initial strategy had been to beat the Taliban into submission so that they would come to the negotiating table, and also crucially to build up the Afghan Army to take over security from U.S. and NATO forces. So far neither mission has been accomplished.
To try to preserve more than a decade’s investment in blood and treasure made by the U.S. and the world, the U.S. has pledged to leave a residual force in Afghanistan: thousands of training troops and special forces for counter-terrorism operations. But those details have yet to be worked out with the Afghan government.
The governor has taken a long time to articulate his vision for Afghanistan. He omitted the topic entirely from his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in August.
But he did raise it when he delivered his first major foreign policy speech of the campaign at the Virginia Military Institute on October 8,agreeing with the President’s exit timetable, while taking political shots.
“I will pursue a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014,” Romney said. “President Obama would have you believe that anyone who disagrees with his decisions in Afghanistan is arguing for endless war. But the route to more war – and to potential attacks here at home – is a politically timed retreat that abandons the Afghan people to the same extremists who ravaged their country and used it to launch the attacks of 9/11.”
He added, “I will evaluate conditions on the ground and weigh the best advice of our military commanders.”
So is Romney leaving the door open to extending the U.S. stay? Not clear. But he rejects Obama’s policy of talks with the Taliban.
"We don't negotiate with terrorists. I do not negotiate with the Taliban. That's something for the Afghans to decide how they're going to ... pursue their course in the future," he said last year during a Republican primary debate.
Romney’s running-mate, Paul Ryan, criticized the Obama administration in the vice presidential debate last week but didn’t commit to a longer timeline in Afghanistan.
“We don't want to lose the gains we've gotten,” Ryan said. “We want to make sure that the Taliban does not come back in and give al-Qaeda 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.”
So, no big difference between the two parties. And no real assurances that any exit will be safe.
This past Sunday, The New York Times threw up its hands, and in a devastating editorial, called for the U.S. to start withdrawing from Afghanistan now. After more than 2,000 U.S. deaths and more than 17,000 severely wounded, the Times says the war which had powerful support at the start, has bled that support away.
The Times points out that coming into office, Obama called Afghanistan a “war we have to win”.
What a tragedy then for Afghanistan, for the United States and for all the nations who fought for a better future to come to this realization: Mission Not Accomplished.