The war in Iraq has largely fallen off the table among issues being contested in the presidential election campaign, but America’s “other” war in Afghanistan, has begun to attract more attention, at least in part because of increased U.S. casualties in that theater. Since the economy will almost certainly continue to dominate election concerns between now and the first Tuesday in November, what is being said about Afghanistan is hardly likely to be critical in who wins the White House. Whoever does win, however, will to some extent be stuck with what he has already said on the matter. In that sense, the debate does matter.


The candidates are in agreement on two matters. The first is that the effort is important because of the terrorism problem, although Obama tends to place more emphasis on this theater because it drives home his point that Iraq diverted attention from this more impotant problem. They also both agree that at least part of the solution is more American troops to Afghanistan.

They disagree on other aspects of the issue, and their positions are more problematical than is typically discussed.

McCain argues that the United States can prevail in Afghanistan because in a McCain administration, the emphasis would be on transferring the Petraeus “doctrine” of cointerinsurgency (COIN) to Afghanistan. This formulation is questionable on at least three grounds.

First, it assumes the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan are similar enough that what worked in one would also work in the other. Aside from both being in the same general part of the world, that is an assumption for which the supporting evidence is less than overwhelming. Iraq, in other words, probably is NOT Pakistan (more in a subsequent posting). Second, it assumes that the COIN strategy with which Patraeus’ name is attached is a balm for the current problem in Afghanistan. One can argue that other factors, not COIN, have improved the situation in Iraq. Effective COIN (in those cases where it works) requires huge numbers of forces to protect a population being pacified and coverted to the cointerinsurgents’ cause. Even then, the outcome is not assured. The necessary levels of force are unlikely ever to be available for textbook COIN in Afghanistan. The analogy fails.

Third, in present circumstances, General Petraeus, McCain’s man on the white horse, does not even have operational control or responsibility for Afghanistan. NATO is (largely at American prodding) a NATO operation, and General David McKiernan (or is it McClellan?) does not report to CENTCOM commander Petraeus, but to NATO. The United States has recently called for a reorganization of the NATO effort to put the Americans under CENTCOM, but that has not happened and is opposed by many in NATO (see Sengupta article). Before McCain can even try his proposed strategy in Afghanistan, he will have to negotiate a change in the NATO command structure in Afghanistan, a move that could easily create as many problems as it solves.

The Obama approach is also not without controversy. The heart of Obama’s message is that the United States erred in diverting is efforts to stomp out Al Qaeda by going into Iraq and that once the Iraqi diversion is over, it can successfully reorient itself to Afghanistan. To his credit (or is it the Biden touch?), he has admitted that much of the reorientation must be improved political relations with Afghanistan and Pakistan lubricated by significant amounts of developmental assistance to improve conditions on the ground as a way to compete for the “hearts and minds” of the mostly Pashtun population (which forms the base of the Taliban) along the border area between the two where Al Qaeda is encamped.

The Obama approach is also subject to questions. First, it has been elusive about what exactly constitutes success in Afghanistan (McCain hasn’t said either): how will we know we’ve won? Second, Afghan history does not encourage the use of military force/occupation as a successful strategy against the Afghans–ask a long history of invaders of that land. Third, he has not explained how the United States, in its contemporary economic situation, is going to find the money to pay for all the economic assisance that is supposed to “buy” support for the Karzai regime (or, for that matter, how to avoid the Afghan government from stealing most of it). Can money “buy you love”, in the words of an old Beatles song.

Nobody is questioning the candidates closely on Afghanistan now, because it does not seem terribly critical to the election. Afghanistan policy is, however, going to be sitting near the top of the in-box for the new president in January, and it is a policy area with all the potential corrosiveness of Iraq or even Vietnam. What the candidates think and say now could come home to bite them in the future.

Donald M. Snow, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama, is the author of over 40 books on foreign policy, international relations, and national security topics. His most recent book, What After Iraq?, was published in March.  Originally posed at the What After Iraq? blog.