On Afghanistan, where does Romney stand?

Dan Balz
Chief correspondent October 8, 2011

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney delivered a major foreign policy address Friday that happened to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the start of the war in Afghanistan. But in a speech whose prepared text ran more than 2,700 words in length, he devoted just two paragraphs totaling 117 words to that conflict.

To be fair to Romney, the speech, delivered at the Citadel in South Carolina, was not intended as a deep dive into U.S. policy in Afghanistan. It was, rather, a broad outline of his foreign policy and national security principles, an across-the-globe look at how the former Massachusetts governor sizes up the critical issues and some of the steps he would take as president in dealing with them.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

Romney sought to offer a robust vision, an argument for maintaining a strong military and projecting U.S. power. He also asserted that President Obama has taken a starkly different approach during his nearly three years in office. “I will not surrender America’s role in the world,” Romney said. “If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your president. You have that president today.”

Still, it was striking how little Afghanistan figured into his examination of the world. Near the top of his speech, he posed two important questions: “After the United States and NATO have withdrawn all forces, will the Taliban find a path back to power? After over a decade of American sacrifice in treasure and blood, will the country sink back into the medieval terrors of fundamentalist rule and the mullahs again open a sanctuary for terrorists?”

And what would he do as president? He saved that for near the end of the speech. “I will order a full review of our transition to the Afghan military to secure that nation’s sovereignty from the tyranny of the Taliban. I will speak with our generals in the field and receive the best recommendation of our military commanders. The force level necessary to secure our gains and complete our mission successfully is a decision I will make free from politics.”

What Romney did not provide was any hint of what he really thinks about the state of the conflict after a decade of effort. In the speech, as in some of his earlier comments, the former Massachusetts governor was critical of the timetable Obama has established for withdrawing U.S. forces, suggesting that it is too hasty, while holding out the hope that the overall transition could happen even faster than planned.

During a debate in New Hampshire in June, he said, “It’s time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can.” But he then added conditions. “I want those troops to come home based upon not politics, not based upon economics, but instead based upon the conditions on the ground determined by the generals,” he said.

He then seemed to move back in the other direction by saying, “But I also think we’ve learned that our troops shouldn’t go off and try to fight a war of independence for another nation. Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan’s independence from the Taliban.”

Those comments drew some criticism from conservatives, but did more to spawn confusion about exactly what Romney thought about the issue.

On Friday, he once again seemed to try to stake out ground on both sides of the divide over how quickly U.S. forces can or should be withdrawn. In his speech, he criticized Obama’s decision to withdraw by this time next year the roughly 33,000 surge forces he had ordered into the country in late 2009.

But when asked later by Judy Woodruff of PBS’s “NewsHour” about the agreement that calls for all foreign forces to be out of Afghanistan by 2014, Romney said, “I hope we can perhaps move even faster than that.”

He also criticized Obama for overriding the recommendations of his military commanders with regard to the timing of the surge forces’ withdrawal. He suggested that on questions of U.S. force strength he would listen to his generals, implying that Obama had not done so.

Woodruff asked whether it was not the role of the president to make such decisions. “You were saying you would always defer to the generals,” she said.

“Did I say that, Judy?” Romney responded. “If I did, let me correct myself. I said I would listen to the generals and receive the input of those who are the commanders in the field, and then I would make my own decision.”

Does that mean that he, like Obama, might choose to override them?

That there is war-weariness over Afghanistan is evident in all the public opinion polling available. More Americans now believe the war is going badly than believe it is going well, according to a recent CBS News poll. A solid majority say the United States should not be involved there now, and half say the war has not been a success.

Republican presidential candidates are divided on the issue. Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. have been the most critical of the Afghanistan mission and the most vocal in calling for a quick end to U.S. participation in it. The cost of the war also looms as an issue, given the calls for spending cuts to help reduce the deficit, with some Republicans citing that as a reason to rethink the U.S. role.

When Woodruff asked Romney what role public opinion plays in foreign policymaking, he said: “The commander in chief also has to be the educator in chief and has to communicate to the American people why he is making the decisions he’s making. This president, in an inexplicable way, has not communicated to the American people what’s happening in Afghanistan, what the progress is, what the challenges are, why the timetable is being evaluated as it is.”

Romney described the United States as in the “wind-down period” in Afghanistan. But he has yet to follow his own advice to lay out clearly the answers to the questions he posed in his speech or to explain what progress is being made, what challenges remain and what kind of timetable he would recommend for bringing the troops home. Most important, he has not explained what he thinks the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is at this point and what would constitute success.

Economic issues will dominate the 2012 election, but a war that has gone on as long as this one ought not to become an afterthought. Romney said at the Citadel that the next president will face many difficult and complex foreign policy decisions. “Few will be black and white,” he said. No doubt he is correct, but greater clarity on a decade-long conflict that has cost so much in lives and dollars is something he owes the voters soon.

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