Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Fine Print

Romney needs to be careful about his ‘facts’ about the Afghanistan war

A presidential candidate should be careful about foreign policy declarations made on the campaign trail and particularly during a heated televised debate.

I am not talking about Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s ignorant remarks Monday night about cutting off aid to Turkey’s ruling government of “Islamic terrorists,” since he has little chance of getting the nomination.

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My focus is on Republican front-runner Mitt Romney and his statements about the Taliban and the war in Afghanistan.

One question to him was: “Governor Romney, should the United States negotiate with the Taliban to end the fighting in Afghanistan?”

Romney’s answer: “These people have declared war on us. They’ve killed Americans. We go anywhere they are and we kill them.”

Facts: After long negotiations with aides to Taliban leader Mohammad Omar, there is agreement for a Taliban political office to be opened in Qatar. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has given tentative assent. Obama administration officials insist that talks, when they begin, are only for confidence-building and that real negotiations over Afghanistan’s future must occur between the insurgents and the Karzai government.

Meanwhile, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton put it on Jan. 11, you don’t have the luxury of talking about ending a war with friends.

“We are prepared to support an Afghan-led process of reconciliation, and we will participate in that in support of the Afghans if we believe it holds promise for an end to the conflict,” she said.

But Clinton also said, “We have to continue fighting against those who take up arms against Afghans, and against NATO-ISAF [the U.S.-led Afghan coalition].”

At Monday’s debate, Romney went on to say President Obama now “wants to negotiate from a position of extraordinary weakness? You don’t negotiate from — with your enemy from a position of weakness, as this president has done.”

Facts: The latest National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan, briefed to Congress last month, noted recent gains had been made against the Taliban that showed a new level of strength in the coalition position. Still, there was no end in sight for the fighting because of the Kabul government’s corruption and incompetence and the insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan. The overall assessment was that both military and diplomatic success were unlikely before December 2014, when all U.S. combat forces are to be gone.

Romney on Monday also said: “This president has done an extraordinary thing. He announced the date of our withdrawal. He announced the date of the withdrawal of our surge forces based upon a political calendar, not the calendar that the commanders on the ground said it was based for our mission. [Applause.] That was wrong. And then he announced the day that we’re going to pull out of the — of the country altogether.”

Facts: In June, Obama said 33,000 troops, the same number he ordered surged to Afghanistan in December 2009, would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by September 2012. It was not the number that commanders originally recommended, nor did they agree with the timing.

But on Dec. 11, Gen. John Allen, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius that there would be 68,000 combat troops left after September and he understood the president’s policy was for a “strategy-based drawdown” — thereafter driven by the situation on the ground through 2014.

The U.S. plan is to keep a residual force of about 10,000 to 30,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014, primarily at the Bagram air base. An agreement for trainers and special forces is under negotiation with the Karzai government.

Another Romney statement Monday: “The right course for America is to recognize we’re under attack. [Applause.] We’re under attack by people, whether they’re al-Qaeda or other radical violent jihadists around the world, and we’re going to have to take action around the world to protect ourselves. And hopefully we could do it as we did with Osama bin Laden, as opposed to going to war, as we had to do in — in the case of — of Iraq.”

Facts: Romney is repeating a preemption policy initiated under George W. Bush, which should not be a surprise because many of Romney’s advisers on foreign policy and national security served in the Bush administration.

Ironically, Romney also is reflecting a section of Obama’s recently revised strategic guidance released on Jan. 5. It reads: “For the foreseeable future, the United States will continue to take an active approach to countering these [terrorist] threats by monitoring the activities of non-state threats worldwide, working with allies and partners to establish control over ungoverned territories, and directly striking the most dangerous groups and individuals when necessary.”

Why take Romney’s campaign remarks seriously?

Because I believe when he became president, Obama felt bound by his often-repeated statements as a candidate that Iraq was the “wrong war” and that the United States should shift to the “right war” in Afghanistan. Those campaign remarks, made to prove he was tough, led him in early 2009 to overstate that we had not only to defeat the Taliban, but also nation-build a democratic Afghanistan.

Fortunately, today, our goal is less expansive and a bit more realistic.

As Clinton put it recently, “We have to continue to try to build Afghanistan for the future.”

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