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Here are the biggest defense topics the presidential debates skipped

Over the course the three presidential debates, the two major party candidates covered a long list of policy and political topics, including rebuilding the U.S. military, fighting terrorism and handling Russian aggression.

But Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton didn't cover everything during their five-plus hours of nationally televised forums. Here's a look at the biggest national security topics skipped by the candidates and moderators:

Afghanistan

The only mention of America's longest war came in the first debate, when Clinton mentioned Afghanistan in a comment about NATO's importance to America.

Neither candidate mentioned the ongoing mission there during Wednesday's event, even though a U.S. service member and an American civilian worker were killed during an attack near Kabul just hours before the debate started.

About 9,800 U.S. troops are still deployed in Afghanistan, on training and advisory missions. Even though American forces aren't typically engaged in direct combat with insurgents, at least eight U.S. service members have been killed in fighting there in 2016.

Several lawmakers have also questioned the rise of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, within Afghanistan, raising questions about the country becoming a new breeding ground for terrorism. While ISIS was a major topic at all three presidential debates, that aspect of their strategy was not.

Department of Veterans Affairs

Veterans were mentioned six times over the three debates, but never in the context of major policy or reform proposals.

In the first two debates, Clinton referenced them twice as being shortchanged by Trump’s alleged failure to pay taxes. In the third debate, Trump reiterated his accusation that "we take care of illegal immigrants better than we take care of our vets" but offered no further specifics.

Reforming VA operations has played a significant role on the campaign trail, with both candidates promising substantial changes at the department if they become commander in chief. Trump has promised to expand nongovernment health care options for veterans, while Clinton has called that privatization and steadfastly opposed the idea.

Congress has approved the fiscal 2017 budget for the department, giving officials nearly $177 billion for veterans programs. That’s up dramatically in the last decade, and many lawmakers have suggested the next president must focus on eliminating fraud and abuse within that agency.

Sequestration

Caps on defense and nondefense spending have played a major role in both parties' campaigns, but the topic was noticeably missing from all three of the debate stages.

That may be a reflection of the complexity of the topic and the candidates’ inability to change it.

Clinton and Trump have both promised to undo the 2011 spending limits that have infuriated Pentagon planners, but so has President Barack Obama, with little success.

Trump has said he wants to see the spending caps lifted on defense funding for the final five years of the Budget Control Act. Clinton has too, but with the caveat that nondefense spending also needs to see a hike.

That has been the fundamental political fight over the issue in Congress for the last five years. Several lawmakers have expressed hope that a new administration might break the deadlock on the issue, but so far the campaign rhetoric has matched the ongoing legislative roadblocks.

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.

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