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Alan Khazei is proposing that the U.S. draw down the number of troops in Afghanistan and have Afghan troops take over counterinsurgency operations.
"We've lost our way, strayed from our mission,"Khazei said in a speech at Harvard University, "and now we're asking our troops to build a nation in a place that is laden with corruption and has never had a strong central government. This isn't in our interest as a nation, and it's not fair to our troops."
As the campaign has evolved, so has his position. Last month, he would only say that he was not ready to support a troop increase in Afghanistan. Khazei's position now seems more definitive than the positions we've heard so far from two of his rivals, Attorney General Martha Coakley and venture capitalist Steve Pagliuca.
Neither has gone so far as to say the U.S. should begin pulling troops out. In fact, they have pretty much shied away from the issue.
"At this point in time, I would not put more troops in Afghanistan," Pagliuca said at the Kennedy Library last month. "We've not been successful in counterinsurgency strategies since World War II. It's very difficult for our troops. It puts them in harm's way."
"We'd better make sure that we have a mission," Coakley said at the same event, "that we can accomplish that mission, that we have an exit strategy — so I'm against more troops right now."
The other two candidates have gone out of their way to talk about what the U.S. should do in Afghanistan. Alan Khazei has clearly decided to stake his campaign on this issue.
"A lot of people inside my campaign said, 'Why are you spending so much time on this?' " Khazei said at Harvard. "Because it's the most important thing that's going on in our country right now. This is war and peace. People are dying."
Like Khazei, Congressman Mike Capuano supports a withdrawal of troops.
"This is not a place that a military solution is doable," Capuano said at the Kennedy Library debate last month. "The English couldn't do it. The Russians couldn't do it. Alexander the Great couldn't do it. We can't do it. More importantly, we shouldn't do it. We need to leave."
Capuano gave a more nuanced answer when campaigning at the Nashoba Brook Bakery in Concord. He fielded a question from a voter who also made an analogy between the Russian and American experience in Afghanistan.
"I want to hear your comment on why you think our involvement in Afghanistan isn't going to be different from what happened to the Russians over there," the voter said.
"If we're in Afghanistan for the wrong reason, the results will be the exact same results of the Russians," Capuano replied. "They were there to conquer. If we are there to conquer, to win a war, we will fail, not militarily, but over time we will fail, because you can't conquer a people unless you're willing to devastate them."
The Afghanistan debate has a different dimension to those who fought there.
"When I got out, I was a captain," said Tim Lawton, who served two tours of duty with the Army in Iraq and two more with a special operations unit in various regions of Afghanistan.
"I can't say exactly where," he said, "but I've been all over different parts of the country — North, South, East — pretty much all over the country."
Lawton is from Bridgewater. We met in Kendall Square, close to MIT, where he is now a student at the Sloan School of Management.
"I would be looking for a candidate who is supportive of the military," Lawton said, "supportive of the armed forces, supportive of our mission over there, and who I feel has the common sense enough to listen to the troops on the ground, the commanders on the ground, as opposed to politics."
Lawton said he has not decided for whom he'll vote. But he said the candidates' positions on Afghanistan won't by themselves determine his vote. There are other issues that also come into play. He does believe that U.S. forces should stay in Afghanistan. And he believes that the president should listen to the request for more troops put forward by the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal.
"I think it's good what we're doing, the troop increases that we've had recently," Lawton said. "I think we definitely need more to be able to effectively reach the goals that McCrystal has placed on the table as far as American presence to be able to not only fight and kill the enemy, but also to offer the support to the locals."
Other issues overshadow Afghanistan in the minds of voters. A Suffolk University poll released last week showed that it's the third issue, behind the economy and health care. But clearly, it is an issue on voters' minds.
Last month, more Americans were killed in Afghanistan than in any month since the war began. Towns all over Massachusetts felt the impact, and voters are left wondering whether more troops should be sent.
"I don't know," said Charlie Jette , who was among the thousands who turned out for a tribute in North Attleborough following the death of Capt. Kyle Van De Giesen. "I don't think we should be losing our men and children there, no. I think that something has to change, yes. Why does it have to be our kids that have to change it, though?"
Not far away, on the same field, another resident of North Attleborough, Al Inglese, said he'd like to see the war end, "but I think it's right that we're over there, and it's what we as Americans do, protect freedom and justice and everything else, and what started this thing and it wasn't right," he said.
"What they did to us wasn't right and I don't think it's the eye for the eye, but you can't, you just can't let it go," Inglese went on. "Has it gone on too long? Yes, unfortunately, it has. And have we lost too many young men like this? Yes, we have, but it's what freedom's all about. And that's what he gave his life for."
Amidst the grief, voters in the home towns sound ambivalent about what the country should do. They, like the candidates, are still trying to find their way.
This program aired on November 17, 2009.
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