- By Paul D. MillerPaul D. Miller is the associate director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He previously served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council staff for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
The Republican presidential debate in Florida on Tuesday focused again on jobs, taxes, and healthcare, with virtually no mention of Afghanistan, which is the United States’ third-largest military deployment since Vietnam and fifth-largest since World War II. There was only passing mentions of terrorism, Iran, or China. This is especially odd given that the President does not have the power to create jobs, change the U.S. tax code, or revamp the health care system — which is the burden of the private sector and the U.S. Congress, respectively — but he does have the authority to conduct foreign policy and command the armed forces.
The debate contained just one back-and-forth on Afghanistan between Jon Hunstman, about whom the less said the better, and Rick Perry. This is Perry’s first public comment on Afghanistan that I’ve seen of any length. Here it is, according to the CNN transcript:
[I]t’s time to bring our young men and women home and as soon and obviously as safely as we can. But it’s also really important for us to continue to have a presence there. And I think the entire conversation about, how do we deliver our aid to those countries, and is it best spent with 100,000 military who have the target on their back in Afghanistan, I don’t think so at this particular point in time. I think the best way for us to be able to impact that country is to make a transition to where that country’s military is going to be taking care of their people, bring our young men and women home, and continue to help them build the infrastructure that we need.
Perry advocates for a troop withdrawal "as soon and obviously as safely as we can," which probably means he is not in favor of a withdrawal at the price of outright defeat. He is also open to some kind of residual U.S. military presence, presumably for ongoing training and counterterrorism operations. He wants to complete the responsible transition to Afghan security forces. I’m not sure what he is getting at about delivering foreign aid with 100,000 troops with targets on their backs — perhaps he is saying he is skeptical about how effective foreign aid can be in a country with an ongoing conflict, which makes sense. But then he is also in favor of continuing to help build infrastructure, presumably military infrastructure like roads, airports, and bases to help the Afghan security forces, and vital economic infrastructure, like roads (again) and electricity, to help the Afghans achieve economic self-sufficiency. I admit I’m reading a lot into his remarks, but that is always the case with transcripts.
All in all, Perry seems to be in company with Romney, articulating a cautious willingness to persist in Afghanistan, complete the transition to Afghan lead, yet be realistic about what’s achievable there. The two leading candidates have staked out a middle position between, on the one hand, Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman, who advocate withdrawal regardless of the consequences, and, on the other, Michelle Bachman, who in an earlier debate seemed to advocate for persistence regardless of the cost (and who I suspect would be joined by Rick Santorum). The Perry-Romney position has the advantage of being both decent policy and, I think, good politics.