Foreign Policy: Pin the war on your opponent

October 12, 2012

In a remarkable act of ‘pin the war on your opponent’ Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday evening worked to portray Paul Ryan as the candidate most in favor of continuing the unpopular fight in Afghanistan, a conflict President Barack Obama once called the “war that has to be won” and to which he added 33,000 American soldiers.

Biden said that Ryan and his GOP running mate Mitt Romney support a timeline for drawdown of the remaining troops in Afghanistan that is based on conditions on the ground. And then he proceeded to ridicule that idea.

“My friend and the governor say it’s based on conditions, which means ‘it depends,'” said Biden of the Afghan war’s promised 2014 end. “It does not depend for us. It is the responsibility of the Afghans to take care of their own security.”

“Our goal should be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014,” Romney said in September. “We should evaluate conditions on the ground and solicit the best advice of our military.”

Ryan Thursday tried to defend his ticket’s position and clarified that “we don’t want to extend beyond 2014.” Instead, he said, he and Romney want to be certain that American troops still in the field have enough strength in numbers to pursue their fight.

“We want to make sure that 2014 is successful,” Ryan said. “That’s why we want to make sure that we give our commanders what they say they need to make it successful.”

Of course Biden’s own Pentagon sounded a lot like Ryan last November.

“We’ve repeatedly said that the nature of the drawdown after the surge troops come home will be conditions-based,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said, according to Reuters. “No decisions have been made.”

But Biden said that it was now up to Afghans, not Americans, to fight this war.

“Because that’s the Afghan responsibility. We’ve trained them,” said Biden. “We should send Americans in to do the job, instead of the — you’d rather Americans be going in doing the job instead of the trainees?”

America’s longest war won little attention in the first presidential debate and even less at either party’s convention this summer. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has struggled to define his position on Afghanistan and how it differs from the president’s. The major distinctions: Romney does not favor Taliban negotiations and while he supports President Obama’s 2014 drawdown he says he would not have announced it as Obama did.

But in the 90-minute vice presidential showdown, the candidates wrangled on Afghanistan multiple times, both at the start and toward the end of the evening.

And Biden made it clear, again and again, that the war’s end was in sight regardless of what happens on the ground.

“We are leaving. We are leaving in 2014. Period,” said Biden.

Sec. Clinton says every time she speaks of Afghanistan – most recently at last week’s meeting of the US-Afghanistan Bilateral Commission – that the United States “has made an enduring commitment to Afghanistan.” In Afghanistan last May the president said the Strategic Partnership Agreement between the two countries sent “a clear message to the Afghan people: as you stand up, you will not stand alone.”

But no such reassuring language came from Biden as he sought to make Ryan look more hawkish on a war that his administration pursued and to which it added 33,000 “surge” forces in 2009.

Five years ago then-candidate Obama called Afghanistan the ‘right’ war when compared to Iraq. And he said that might alone would not bring victory.

“The solution in Afghanistan is not just military – it is political and economic,” Obama said at the time. “Above all, I will send a clear message: we will not repeat the mistake of the past, when we turned our back on Afghanistan following Soviet withdrawal. As 9/11 showed us, the security of Afghanistan and America is shared.”

On Thursday Biden made clear that the only mistake of the past he sees is embracing a bloody and expensive war that a majority of Americans now say is not worth its costs. And he tried to make Ryan look more hawkish on a war that his president advanced and the public no longer backs. It is unlikely war-weary voters will pay much attention to the vice president’s policy waltz on the country’s long-enduring conflict. Most Americans simply want out, and, like Biden, the “how” is now far less important to them than the “when.”

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.