GOP candidates punt on Afghanistan

The leading Republican Presidential candidates are cautiously keeping their distance from the confusing war in Afghanistan, in part, because rival groups of White House officials are still arguing over the nation’s Afghan strategy, and are creating confusion and political risk in the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

More immediately, there’s a growing anti-war trend in the GOP base that might tip primary votes away from candidates that vociferously champion the Afghan campaign. That trend surfaced last month when 26 House Republicans voted for a measure that would accelerate troop withdrawals from Afghanistan.

Governor Tim Pawlenty, for example, used a May 5 candidates’ debate in South Carolina to criticize President Barack Obama’s national-security strategy, but steered clear of any commitments on Afghanistan. Similarly, the country got only a brief mention when Governor Mitt Romney launched his nomination campaign June 3.

The GOP’s small-government candidates, however, are forthright in their opposition to the Afghan campaign. New Mexico governor Gary Johnson and Texas Rep. Ron Paul both want the U.S. out of the country, ASAP. The Afghan campaign is “an exercise in futility, according to Paul. At the South Carolina debate, Governor Johnson said the U.S. was right to attack the Taliban movement in the months after the 9/11 atrocity, but should not be spending borrowed money to build roads in the Afghan mountains.

Herman Cain, normally ready with a high-energy answer, was cautious. “It is not clear what the mission is. it is not clear to the American people what our interests are…. [and] what he road-map to victory is.”

Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman made a play for the stay-at-home vote on May 20, when he told ABC News’ Good Morning America show that the Afghan campaign “is a heavy and very expensive presence we have on the ground… [and] not consistent with how we ought to be responding” to strategically novel threats.

Only former Sen. Rick Santorum took a position in favor of the Afghan campaign in the May debate. The president “has done right by trying to win in Afghanistan” because he followed President George W. Bush’s policies, he said.

For the leading GOP candidates, such as Romney and Pawlenty, the safest position is to avoid the issue until the White House’s strategy becomes clearer. That strategy is scheduled to be announced later this month, but it may be delayed, or lack clarity when it is revealed.