Hagle: Afghanistan and the 2014 timetable


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During their debate, both Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan indicated that American troops should be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Despite this rare agreement by the two campaigns, there are two important differences in how they approach the issue.

During his campaign of 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama promised to end the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He did not do so immediately upon taking office and started to receive criticism from those on the political left. As we enter the final weeks of the 2012 campaign, President Obama frequently notes that he kept his promise to end the war in Iraq and that our troops will be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

The criticism from Gov. Mitt Romney’s campaign isn’t particularly with the timetable for leaving Afghanistan but that it was announced publically. The argument is that because the enemy knows we will leave relatively soon, they have little or no incentive to either stop fighting or negotiate to end hostilities. The fear is that they will just wait until we leave and then intensify their efforts to retake control of the country. If, the argument continues, the enemy believes we are willing to continue fighting until the mission is accomplished, however that mission is defined, they would be more likely to work out a peaceable solution.

The essential argument against announcing a firm timetable for withdrawal is that you don’t want to let the enemy know your plans. Doing so gives them the opportunity to counter the plans to their own advantage.

A second point of contention is with what the Romney campaign sees as the artificial nature of the timeline. Obama, of course, wishes to end combat operations to keep his original campaign promise. From Romney’s perspective, we should listen to the military commanders who have the best information about what to do and when to do it.

The president, whoever it may be, certainly must get the best information possible when making such important military decisions. The people who are likely to have the best information will be the military commanders.

Nevertheless, the Constitution makes the president the commander-in-chief. As an elected official, that necessarily means there will be a political aspect to a president’s decisions. Although we hope that those decisions won’t be based merely on a current president’s re-election chances, the political will of the people to support military action is certainly a consideration. Put another way, a president cannot simply turn the decision over to the military. 

As much as the generals may be able to provide the best military advice, they may not be able to see the bigger picture in terms of the best interests of the United States. That is the president’s job.

Although certain military options may be the most expedient in terms of particular military goals, such options may not be the best in terms of the president’s broader goals of protecting America and advancing our interests. The task for the president, which is often difficult, is to strike the proper balance between political and military considerations.

Timothy Hagle
UI associate professor of political science

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