Shadow Government

How Do the Republican Candidates Stack Up on Afghanistan?

Donald Trump recently failed the “commander-in-chief” test. At an event with pollster Frank Luntz on Saturday, Trump ignited a firestorm by mocking Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former prisoner of war, for being captured. “I like people that weren’t captured, OK? I hate to tell you. He is a war hero because he was captured,” ...


Donald Trump recently failed the “commander-in-chief” test. At an event with pollster Frank Luntz on Saturday, Trump ignited a firestorm by mocking Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former prisoner of war, for being captured. “I like people that weren’t captured, OK? I hate to tell you. He is a war hero because he was captured,” Trump said, almost immediately earning the derision of everyone who has ever served in the military or benefited from their service (read: every single American ever).

No other candidate has so bombastically failed, or passed, the test, but there is another fair measure by which we might grade them: their comments on America’s only current shooting war. (That would be Afghanistan, for those who need a refresher, where there are almost 10,000 U.S. troops who are scheduled to withdraw by the end of 2016.) I find this a convenient litmus test to see if a candidate is paying attention, aware of basic facts, supportive of American leadership, tough on terrorism, willing to lead and speak out on an unpopular topic, and understands the connection between the war in Afghanistan and America’s broader role in the world.

Astonishingly, not a single candidate has a position on Afghanistan listed on their campaign website (Marco Rubio’s is the most user friendly, by the way). Less astonishingly, none responded to my series of tweets asking their positions. It is entirely possible I’ve missed statements or speeches by some of the candidates (there are 16 of them, after all); please feel free to flag updates and omissions in the comments section below. Candidates are listed in alphabetical order.

Jeb Bush. In February Bush said he would not second-guess his brother’s decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan because “I won’t talk about the past.” He soon found it necessary to talk about Iraq; talking about Afghanistan will be even more important because that war, and America’s role in it, is still ongoing. Grade: I, for incomplete.

Ben Carson. In 2013 Carson said he opposed the war in Afghanistan — not the 2009 surge there, mind you, but the initial invasion in 2001. Instead, he would have used unspecified other means to go after al-Qaida that didn’t involve military forces in Afghanistan (where al-Qaida was headquartered). Grade: F.

Chris Christie. In 2011 Christie bobbed and weaved, saying he would withdraw troops from Afghanistan based on conditions on the ground, but he also said that killing Osama bin Laden substantially achieved U.S. goals in that country and that he wasn’t “a nation-building kind of guy,” suggesting Christie does not endorse counterinsurgency, reconstruction, or stabilization, and believes we can kill our way out of the war with al-Qaida—which we can’t. Grade: C-

Ted Cruz. In April Cruz outlined criteria for American intervention abroad. Among them, he said that after employing overwhelming force, “we should get the heck out.” He continued: “It is not the job of the U.S. military to engage in nation building to turn foreign countries into democratic utopias.” This wasn’t explicitly in reference to Afghanistan — nor is it a very accurate rebuttal of what U.S. policy has actually been there — but I think it’s fair to infer that Cruz believes the United States should not have tried to support democracy or reconstruction and stabilization operations in Afghanistan. Grade: F.

Carly Fiorina. In 2010 Fiorina apparently expressed opposition to a fixed timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan, but I’ve been unable to find any other comment from her on the issue. Grade: C.

Lindsey Graham. Graham served in Afghanistan briefly in 2009 as an Army reservist and co-authored an excellent op-ed in the Washington Post with John McCain and Joe Lieberman in 2012 that hit all the right notes: Afghanistan is important, we’ve made progress which is in danger of unraveling, premature withdrawal would be foolish, and Obama has undermined his own policy with too little commitment to the war. He reiterated the points in a press release in March. Grade: A.

Mike Huckabee. In 2011 and 2012 Huckabee gave mixed signals. He opposed a fixed timetable for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, but also seemed to express doubt that the United States had made progress or was capable of securing its interests in Afghanistan. I’ve been unable to find any more recent statements. Grade: C.

Bobby Jindal. Last October Jindal gave a major speech on U.S. defense policy, but managed not to comment on the war in Afghanistan. On the other hand, in December he warned against withdrawing from Afghanistan, saying a precipitous withdrawal would replicate the same mistake Obama made in Iraq, with similar consequences. Grade: B+.

John Kasich. In April, Kasich rambled that he supported the war in Afghanistan and did not think we should “run out of Afghanistan,” but he also disparaged “nation building” and listed a bunch of interventions he opposed, including Bosnia. He’s trying to have it both ways. Grade: B-.

George Pataki. Pataki’s son served in Afghanistan. Despite that, I found no statements by him about the war one way or the other. Grade: I, for incomplete.

Rand Paul. Rand Paul’s reputation as an anti-interventionist precedes him. To be fair, he supported the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, which is more than Ben Carson. But he has made his opposition to “interventionism” central to his pitch, and I’ve written elsewhere about what is so wrong with it. Grade: F.

Rick Perry. In 2011 Perry appeared to endorse calls for a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan. “It’s time to bring our young men and women home as soon, and obviously as safely, as we can,” he said. Later, he walked back those comments. Last fall he gave a foreign policy speech big on American leadership and hawkish rhetoric but with no mention of Afghanistan. More recently, he disparaged the idea of spreading democracy as a component of U.S. foreign policy. Frankly, it’s hard to tell where he stands. Grade: Do over.

Marco Rubio. In 2011 Rubio published an excellent op-ed in National Review that, like Graham’s, hits all the right points. “Afghanistan’s security is critical to our own security,” he said, and “We should reject artificial timelines for troop withdrawals.” Rubio generally pays more attention to foreign policy than most of the candidates and is more outspoken about American leadership — but he missed an opportunity in his most recent foreign policy speech to address the war in Afghanistan. Grade: A-.

Rick Santorum. In 2011 Santorum criticized Obama’s withdrawal plans and in 2012 warned that premature withdrawal would repeat the same mistake Obama made in Iraq. He also suggested “We have to either make the decision to make a full commitment, which this president has not done, or we have to decide to get out, and probably get out sooner,” though it was pretty clear which option he preferred. I was unable to find more recent statements than this. Grade: B-.

Donald Trump. In 2012 Trump apparently criticized Obama’s withdrawal plans, but also argued the United States should withdraw immediately. Seeing as incoherence is standard for Trump, this shouldn’t surprise. Grade: F.

Scott Walker. I found no comments from Walker on Afghanistan. Grade: I.

For now, it’s Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio for the win — but stay tuned.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Paul 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.

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