The economy is and probably will continue to be the dominant issue in the campaign, but the shooting rampage Sunday, allegedly by a U.S. soldier, that killed 16 Afghan civilians could push the Afghan war into the political debate.
The killings may or may not be a shock to the political system. At a minimum, they are likely to raise uncomfortable questions, particularly for President Obama, the architect of the current policy, but also for the Republican candidates. Even for those out of power, Afghanistan provides no easy answers.
Romney’s response to Chura’s question underscored why. He began by criticizing the president. He said that Obama has not clearly defined the U.S. mission to the American people, and that a president should report regularly on the goals and progress of any such mission.
Romney described the U.S. objective as one of building an Afghan security force capable of protecting the country’s sovereignty — which is not that different from Obama’s stance. Hoping to show empathy with his questioner, he said he wants U.S. troops to come home “as soon as humanly possible.” But he offered a big, broad caveat: They can withdraw, he said, “as soon as that mission is complete.”
Chura’s question underscored the growing public weariness at home about the war. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that more than half the country wants U.S. forces withdrawn even before they can train the Afghan army to handle security on its own. The conflict has not become another Iraq war in terms of public division and emotion, but beneath the surface is a clearly growing pessimism.
As the past few days have shown, Republicans face a debate within the party over what to do about a conflict whose objectives are so difficult to define and whose costs have been enormous. Republican dissent over staying the course in Afghanistan is not pervasive, but there is hardly unanimity.
On Sunday, former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) said the mission “may not be doable” and suggested that military force may not be able to accomplish the goals set by two administrations.
Among other candidates, Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), an opponent of the U.S. intervention, has long called for winding down the war. Before quitting the race, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. called for a speedy end to the conflict and said the resources being spent on it should be used to rebuild the U.S. economy.