10/15/2012 06:16 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2012

Afghanistan in the Obama-Romney Gap

The New York Times shattered America's elite foreign policy consensus about an Afghan "war of necessity" Sunday, declaring that "it is time for United States forces to leave Afghanistan" -- now, not in 2014. No longer is it just a war-weary public that has given up on the mission George W. Bush launched 11 years ago, but some of the country's most prestigious opinion-molders. America is at a Walter Cronkite moment.

As the dike begins to give way, Barack Obama will have to expend serious political capital to sustain his commitment to a two-year NATO troop phase-out. That timetable is intended to give Afghanistan's government a reasonable chance to rouse the country's fractious anti-Taliban majority to contain the insurgency. Obama's Republican challengers would face an even more daunting task, since they are determined not "to lose the gains we've gotten" in the fighting, in vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan's words.

Too many commentators have glibly dismissed the differences on foreign policy between the two presidential candidates as merely "nuance rather than substance." On Afghanistan, the "nuance" turns out to be of enormous substance. While Mitt Romney does not dare directly disagree with President Obama's broadly popular disengagement from the seemingly interminable wars set by Bush, he frames his foreign policy vision in bold terms of "strength," military buildup, and assertive "leadership" -- notions that in the abstract appeal to a high-testosterone male electoral base.

In last Thursday's candidates' debate, Vice President Biden was crystal clear on his view of the administration's Afghanistan policy: America's combat commitment to president Hamid Karzai's government ends in 2014. "We are leaving in 2014" -- full stop.

And Biden took aim at the "nuance" of the Romney position. "My friend [Ryan] and the governor say it's based on conditions, which means 'it depends.' It does not 'depend' for us."

For Biden, 10 years of backing Afghanistan's anti-Taliban majority are enough. "It is the responsibility of the Afghans to take care of their own security." He wouldn't say it, but the implication was clear: If the Kabul coalition cannot hold together with its vastly expanded if low-energy army, it can't expect Americans to give their lives to keep it on life support. "It's their responsibility, not America's."

Romney and Ryan see preservation of the Kabul government free of Taliban influence as a vital national interest, one that would justify continued military engagement. "We want to make sure that the Taliban does not come back in and give al Qaeda a safe haven," Ryan affirmed in the debate. With success defined as keeping the Taliban out, if the anti-Taliban Afghans cannot bar the door, it will be necessary "that we give our commanders what they say they need to make it successful."

Indeed, as Bush's former national security director for Afghanistan observed after the debate, conservatives smell in the Obama-Biden position a signal that the current administration "has no real plans to leave a stay-behind force in Afghanistan after 2014 and is only lip-synching the responsible rhetoric to keep things calm while they hasten to withdraw." The fact that Biden did not even refer to the military training contingent the administration has promised to Kabul after 2014 reinforces their suspicions of another pullout like the one from Iraq.

It is not clear, though, how prolonging the Western military presence in Afghanistan beyond the 13-year cap that Obama envisages can succeed when Afghan public hostility to the foreign presence, or "occupation," is growing palpably. Attacks on U.S. and European troops by supposed Afghan allies underscore the reality of curdled Afghan tolerance for the alien foreign forces.

The clearest signal that the Romney team is boxing itself into continued prosecution of the Afghan war is its adamant opposition to negotiations with the Taliban insurgency, a position Ryan repeated in Thursday's debate. This means a Romney administration has only a single option: a continued Afghan war between the Kabul coalition and its Taliban opponents, and if the coalition cannot hold Afghanistan's endangered cities, the United States has to "defend our friends," a cardinal tenet of Romney's foreign policy.

Biden argues that America's core objective in intervening 11 years ago to oust the Taliban is "almost completed. ... We've decimated al Qaeda central. We have eliminated Osama bin Laden. That was our purpose." And all along, Obama has carefully kept open the door to a negotiated peace with the Taliban.

Unfortunately, Obama has stumbled on the negotiating track. Last year, he turned aside pleas -- backed by all the European allies that have troops alongside Americans in Afghanistan -- for the United Nations to designate an international mediator to maintain contacts and dialogue among the Afghan government and anti-government resistance, the United States and other international troop contributors, and other involved states. Instead, Washington would talk to Taliban representatives of its choosing on its timetable, constantly reassuring a nervous Karzai that it would not sell him out.

The administration's hope that it could control the pace of a negotiating process predictably proved illusory. When it failed to deliver on a promised prisoner swap because of a political outcry in Washington, the Taliban closed the negotiating track as pointless. Administration officials now purport to believe that there will be no negotiations to end the Afghan war until Kabul's troops prove they can defeat Taliban forces on the ground without the Americans.

It ain't necessarily so. Instead of excluding options, Washington should try every one possible. The administration should inform its partners on the U.N. Security Council that it would welcome a United Nations facilitator to re-open negotiating channels with all the relevant parties. And the specific goal should be a negotiated political settlement ahead of the national elections scheduled for 2014 under Afghanistan's current constitution.

Afghanistan risks being lost in the gap between Obama and Romney. As the American public's disillusionment with fighting the war deepens, the precarious support base in Congress and mainstream policy circles is dwindling. The administration cannot afford to dawdle any longer. And it certainly should stop being spooked by conservative complaints about "outsourcing" peace to the United Nations.