GOP candidates punt on Afghanistan

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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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.

After an extended debate, President Barack Obama surged an extra 30,000 troops into the country in 2010, and the entire 100,000-strong force has since pushed the Taliban out of many populated areas. The surge, however, was accompanied by a vague commitment to withdraw some, many or all U.S. troops from the country by as early as 2014. White House officials are now debating whether to withdraw more than 5,000 troops starting this July, whether they can negotiate a deal with the Taliban, and how the war will impact the president’s reelection campaign.

The administration’s simultaneous surge, talk of withdrawal and outreach to the Taliban has confused Afghan political factions, and persuaded many to expect a U.S. departure and a subsequent civil-war, said Ahmad Majidyar, a senior research at the American Enterprise Institute.

This expectation has prompted Afghan president Hamid Karzai to start public disputes with U.S. leaders, have caused an alliance of groups from Northern Afghanistan – ‘the Coalition for Change and Hope’ – to seek alliances with Southern anti-Taliban tribal leaders, and has caused many Taliban leaders – and their allies in Al Qaeda – to husband their battered forces for a counterattack once U.S. forces withdraw, Majidyar said.

The factions are acting rationally, he said, because many leaders saw how the Soviet Union’s rapid withdrawal prompted a civil war that killed many leaders and destroyed many communities. Only a consistent and clear U.S commitment to victory can suppress the trend towards civil-war, he said.

But there’s no such commitment visible, he said. In recent days, both the New York Times and the Washington Post, for example, have both featured articles in which unnamed White House officials say rapid troop-withdrawals can reduce the budget deficit. Outgoing defense secretary Robert Gates, however, used his last official trip to to argue that a too-rapid withdrawal will throw away military and political gains from the surge. Gates is heading for retirement, while top aides to Obama, such as Vice President Joe Biden, are well positioned to step-up their push for a steep cutback in U.S. forces. Obama may disregard their advice – as he did in 2009 – or embrace it in the hope that the withdrawal policy from Afghanistan would strengthen his standing among the left.

The risk with that policy, said Majidyar, is that the Afghan’s security may quickly collapse as factions race to gain an advantage prior to open civil war. That race for the exists may leave Obama with a Vietnam-like disaster on his watch, he said.

These circumstances leave GOP candidates on the sidelines.

There’s also a growing GOP anti-war lobby. Since November 2009, the portion of GOP partisans who support a troop withdrawal has doubled to 43 percent, according to a May poll by the New York Times and CBS. A primary driver, respondents said, was GOP and national worry about the country’s economics, and the cost of the Afghan campaign, estimated at a maximum of $8 billion per month.

That financial argument was reprised this in early June as White House officials said cost-savings are a primary reason to withdraw troops. White House officials also argue that the successful killing of Al Qaeda’s commander, Osama bin Laden, creates an opportunity for U.S. disengagement from Afghanistan.

GOP candidates are reading the same polls.

In his campaign-launch speech, Romney did not describe his Afghan policy, but instead picked at Obama’s policy. “In Afghanistan, the surge was right, announcing a withdrawal date was wrong,” he said. “The Taliban may not have watches, but they do have calendars.” That’s more cautious than his December 2009 stance, when he backed Obama’s surge decision, while suggesting the deployment should actually he higher than 30,000.

Rep. Michele Bachmann also was skeptical about Obama’s December surge because of his simultaneous commitment to eventually pull U.S. troop outs. “I never once heard the word ‘win,’ I never once heard the word ‘victory,’” she told Fox News. These days, she even more skeptical, but still says she’s reluctant to disagree with military advice. “I’m tired of Afghanistan and Iraq too. I think we need to get out… it doesn’t seem we’re gaining any ground. I want to reduce U.S. exposure in Afghanistan. So, let’s get them out as quickly as we can. But at the same time, I don’t want to tell the generals when they’re going to get out,” she said in a May TV interview.

On May 3, Pawlenty met with GOP activists in Iowa and said the U.S. should try to scale-back deployments to Afghanistan. But he hedged his recommendations by saying he would have to examine condition and advice from military leaders, and said some U.S. troops should remain in the region to ensure “if another material threat to the United States is identified, that we can respond and interrupt it and defeat it, efficiently and quickly,” he told the activists, according to a May 3 report in the DesMoines Register.

That’s a very different tune from 2009, when he publicly called on Obama to support a surge in Afghanistan. “The commanders on the ground are saying ‘We have to have more troops,’” Pawlenty told former Sen. Fred Thompson’s radio show in October 2009. “To protect the troops that are there, and to complete the mission,” he said, “we should honor that request and implement that request.”