Vice President Joe Biden said Thursday night that the United States has successfully completed its one and only mission in Afghanistan: to destroy al Qaeda, seeming to narrow the administration's goals for the war.
"The fact is we went there for one reason: to get those people who killed Americans -- al Qaeda," Biden said during his debate with Rep. Paul Ryan. "We decimated al Qaeda central; we have eliminated Osama bin Laden. That was our purpose."
His running mate President Barack Obama, however, has often said that the mission in Afghanistan was twofold: to defeat al Qaeda and to make sure that it or other extremists groups could not find safe haven in Afghanistan to launch future attacks against the West.
"I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future," Obama said in a speech when announcing his 30,000-troop surge in March 2009.
Biden presented the mission of standing up the Afghanistan security forces to establish safety and security in Afghanistan as a side effort that was in Afghanistan's security interests but not an American task.
"It is the responsibility of the Afghans to take care of their own security," he said. "The primary objective is almost completed. Now all we're doing is putting the Kabul government in a position to be able to maintain their own security. It's their responsibility, not America's."
Ryan criticized the Obama administration for withdrawing those surge troops during the 2012 fighting season; Obama fulfilled his pledge to withdraw all 30,000 surge troops by the end of September. But Biden argued that the Afghan fighting season was in spring, not summer.
Ryan pointed out that former Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and former ISAF Commander David Petraeus had both testified that withdrawing the surge troops earlier increased the risks for the remaining troops in Afghanistan.
"Let me start by saying that I support the president's decisions, as do Generals Mattis and Petraeus. We were given voice in this process. We offered our views freely and without hesitation, and they were heard," Mullen testified last year.
"I provided assessments of risk. I provided recommendations. We discussed all of this, again at considerable length... All voices were heard in the Situation Room. And ultimately, the decision has been made," Petraeus testified.
The Obama campaign sent out a quote Thursday evening from current Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey supporting the timing of the surge withdrawal.
The intended purpose of the surge was "to buy us some time to push back on some Taliban initiatives -- particularly in the south and southwest -- and to buy us some space to grow the Afghan security forces... That objective clearly has been met,' Dempsey said last month.
The Obama campaign also noted in an e-mail to reporters that the Romney campaign's position on Afghanistan has changed over the course of the campaign. Biden said Romney's statements supporting Obama's 2014 deadline for withdrawal weren't credible because the Republican candidate has also said he would listen to generals and consider conditions on the ground before making a final decision.
"[Ryan] and the governor say it's based on conditions, which means ‘it depends.' It does not depend for us. It is the responsibility of the Afghans to take care of their own security," Biden said in what appear to be the most emphatic statements on the 2014 departure date by an Obama administration official. "We are leaving in 2014. Period."
In Obama's December 2009 speech announcing the surge, he put it differently: "Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground."
More recently, in May 2012, Obama said, "I don't think that there's ever going to be an optimal point where we say -- this is all done, this is perfect, this is just the way we wanted it and now we can wrap up all our equipment and go home. This is a process, and it's sometimes a messy process, just as it was in Iraq."
Ryan said that the Romney campaign does support the 2014 date but would not have committed to it publicly "because we don't want to broadcast to our enemies ‘Put a date on your calendar, wait us out, and then come back.'"
The U.S. mission would not be complete and successful until Afghanistan can no longer be a safe haven for extremists who want to attack America, he said.
"We agree with the administration on their 2014 transition," said Ryan. "But we want to see the 2014 transition be successful, and that means we want to make sure our commanders have what they need to make sure that it is successful so that this does not once again become a launching pad for terrorists."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.