KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — The Democratic presidential candidates during their debate in Detroit, Michigan this week raised the issue of withdrawing U.S. troops from the 18-year war in Afghanistan, a goal which many appeared to be broadly in agreement about.
But while they broached the subject of U.S. military deaths and the duration of the military’s presence, the people of Afghanistan — who themselves are about to hold a presidential election in September — were rarely mentioned. In fact, the presidential contenders avoided any mention of the toll the Afghan people have been paying in the nearly two decades since the US-led invasion.
Neither the moderators nor the candidates spoke about the fact, for example, that the United Nations attributed 89% of the 519 civilian casualties in the first six months of 2019 — 363 deaths and 156 injured — to international military forces.
Nor did they address the attack targeting a vice presidential candidate in Kabul that led to 20 deaths, dozens of injuries, and the decimation of an entire neighborhood on the first day of campaigning for September’s presidential elections.
What the candidates did mention was the deaths of two U.S. service members in Kandahar on Monday. The deaths of those two soldiers brings the number of US troops killed in Afghanistan so far this year to 12.
Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend Indiana, referred to the seven months he spent as a solder in Afghanistan in 2014. Buttigieg asserted that if he were to win the presidency, he would withdraw the remaining 14,000 US troops within his first year in office.
“I thought I was one of the last troops leaving Afghanistan when I thought I was turning out the lights years ago,” said Buttigieg, who left Afghanistan just as Barack Obama was leading the withdrawal of the majority of foreign troops in the country.
Buttigieg’s rhetoric focused entirely on U.S. soldiers serving in the country. There was no mention of a single Afghan in any of the mayor’s comments on the Afghan war.
“Every time I see news about somebody being killed in Afghanistan, I think about what it was like to hear an explosion over there and wonder whether it was somebody that I served with, somebody that I knew, a friend, roommate, colleague.”
Other candidates, including Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) called for a US troop pullout from Afghanistan. One exception was John Hickenlooper, former Governor of Colorado, who made vague allusions to the status of women — which the Bush administration often cited as an impetus for the 2001 invasion — and a potential “humanitarian disaster.”
Though Hickenlooper did acknowledge that there are more than 30 million people living in the country, what he was not able to do was provide any details that would have helped the American public identify with a war that 61% of the public want out of.
The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said in a report this week that in the first six months of. 2019, the conflict in Afghanistan has caused 3,812 civilian casualties — including 1,366 deaths.
None of the candidates, not even Hickenlooper, mentioned Trump’s recent remarks that he could have solved the Afghan war “literally in 10 days” by killing 10 million people. Nor was there a single mention made about the so-called “Mother of All Bombs,” the world’s largest non-nuclear weapon, that Trump dropped on a village in Eastern Afghanistan in 2017.
On the second night, Sen. Corey Booker (D-NJ) vowed, like the other candidates, that he too would “bring our troops home, and I will bring them home as quickly as possible.”
But in a move that saw him separate himself from former President Barack Obama, Booker said he “will not set during a campaign an artificial deadline” for a US troop withdrawal.
Booker may have made the biggest gaffe on Afghanistan of any candidate in the two nights of debates when he vowed to avoid any decision that could create a potential “vacuum that’s ultimately going to destabilize the Middle East.” Afghanistan is, of course, not in the Middle East.
Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who served briefly in Iraq and continues to serve as a major in the Hawaii National Guard, took a similar approach to Buttigieg, making remarks centered entirely on U.S. service members.
“My cousin is deployed to Afghanistan right now. Nearly 300 of our Hawaii National Guard soldiers are deployed to Afghanistan …This is about leadership, the leadership I will bring to do the right thing to bring our troops home, within the first year in office, because they shouldn’t have been there this long,” Gabbard said.
Another issue absent from the two nights of debate was the Taliban, the largest armed opposition movement in Afghanistan and the group responsible for some of the most audacious attacks in the country’s history. This is especially notable given the fact that the Trump administration is currently engaged in face-to-face peace talks with the group.
During a recent visit to Kabul, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he expects a conclusion to the months-long peace talks between Washington and the Taliban by the beginning of September.
At a time of stark political divides, a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is one issue Democrats and Republicans largely seem to agree on. Leading Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and 2020 contender Joe Biden, once voted in favor of the United States’ Afghan incursion. Now Biden, when speaking about the longest-ever US foreign war, says he will end Washington’s “forever wars,” including in Afghanistan.
It was during Biden’s tenure as vice president under President Barack Obama that the United States ramped up the use of drones, a policy that by 2013 would lead to Afghanistan being named “the most drone-bombed country” in the world. In a 2010 biography, he was quoted as saying that he and Obama both agreed that “We were not in Afghanistan for nation building.” Biden was not asked about his plans for Afghanistan during Tuesday and Wednesday nights’ debate.
Once again, the crowded pool of Democratic presidential hopefuls showed that they have very little understanding of the war in Afghanistan, and even less about the people there paying the highest cost.