Election 2012
3:19 pm
Fri March 23, 2012

How Would A President Romney Handle Afghanistan?

Originally published on Fri March 23, 2012 4:17 pm

An Army staff sergeant's alleged massacre of Afghan civilians has brought new calls for the United States to leave Afghanistan even before the timetable set by President Obama, who has announced that the U.S. combat mission will be over by the end of 2014.

Some Republican presidential candidates are among those publicly asking if now is the time for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan.

But not Mitt Romney.

The former Massachusetts governor and Republican front-runner for the presidential nomination has criticized Obama for announcing a troop withdrawal timetable, but also has suggested that he would bring U.S. troops home as soon as possible.

That has some Democrats accusing Romney of trying to have it both ways when discussing the 10-year-old war.

Who Would End The War First?

One simple way to compare strategies for Afghanistan is to ask this question: Would a President Romney bring American troops home before President Obama, or after?

"That is a legitimate question," says Rich Williamson, a senior foreign policy adviser to the Romney campaign, and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and special envoy to Sudan." But it doesn't have a quick, simple answer."

The answer is murky and complicated — if it's even there at all.

Let's start with Romney's view of President Obama's timetable.

"It's unthinkable that you say: 'Here's the date we're gonna leave, regardless of the circumstances,' " Romney said at a town hall meeting in Maryland this week. "Because that only communicates ... to the enemy, that at some point certain you're leaving. ... They make their plans based upon knowing your plans, when we don't know theirs."

So according to Romney, there should be no firm, public, finish line to the war.

Waning U.S. Public Support

That does not sit well with the American people, according to public opinion polls. A USA Today/Gallup poll taken after the alleged massacre of 17 civilians on March 11 found that half of Americans favored a U.S. troop withdrawal before the end of 2014.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken just before news of the alleged massacre had found that 60 percent of Americans said the war wasn't worth its costs.

"Gov. Romney is committed to success of the mission, but he absolutely wants to get the American troops home as soon as possible," says Williamson.

Those two goals may not be compatible: On the one hand, stay until the U.S. wins; on the other hand, bring the troops home as soon as possible.

The question is how any leader reconciles those two objectives.

Or put differently, without timetables, would a President Romney get the troops out faster or slower than a President Obama?

Williamson says Romney would get them home sooner — but not because of what he calls an artificial deadline.

"We will have a better strategy, better leadership, more firm commitment, and that will result in American troops able to return home sooner," says Williamson.

In other words, Americans would come home sooner because the U.S. would win the war more quickly under a President Romney than under President Obama, says Williamson.

Impossible To Know

"They're trying to get the best of both worlds," says Rep. Adam Smith, D- Wash., top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. "Like, you know, 'It's a bad policy to pull out too soon.' 'Well then, you want to stay longer?' 'Well, I didn't say that.' "

Smith claims that Romney and his advisers are "taking advantage of the fact that the president's the only one who actually has to implement a policy here."

But Romney gets more sympathy from Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

"When you push for specifics, I think the question is, is it credible that a presidential candidate can really have enough information to give specifics as distinguished from a broad set of policies?" says Cordesman. "In this case, the answer has to be no."

Cordesman says Romney is not being mushy on Afghanistan; he's being prudent.

"At this point in time, he's not being briefed, except from people outside the system, outside the White House," says Cordesman. "And he's going to be briefed by people whose perceptions are generally broad and, in policy terms, not on the basis of any clear plan."

This is a point Romney himself has made, speaking last Sunday on Fox News.

"Before I take a stand on a particular course of action," said Romney, "I want to get the input from the people who are there."

Where The Others Stand

That hesitation distinguishes Romney from his Republican opponents.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul has always said Afghanistan is a mistake.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich recently joined that view, telling CBS' Face the Nation it's time for U.S.troops to leave Afghanistan.

"I think we need to reconsider the whole region," Gingrich said. "We need to understand that our being in the middle of countries like Afghanistan is probably counterproductive. We're not prepared to be ruthless enough to force them to change, and yet we're clearly an alien presence."

And former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has said the U.S. needs to either recommit to winning in Afghanistan, or get out now.

But as the primary season enters its last stages, the most important contrast may not be between Romney and other Republicans. It may be between Romney and President Obama.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

That killing in Afghanistan and other recent setbacks in the war have raised calls for the U.S. to leave sooner. Even some of the Republican presidential candidates say it's time to pull out - not Mitt Romney. NPR's Ari Shapiro explains where Romney stands.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: President Obama says the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan will be done by the end of 2014. So one simple way to compare strategies for Afghanistan is to ask this question: Would a President Romney bring American troops home before President Obama or after? Ambassador Rich Williamson is a senior foreign policy adviser to the Romney campaign.

RICH WILLIAMSON: That is a legitimate question, but it doesn't have a quick, simple answer.

SHAPIRO: The answer is murky and complicated, if it's even there at all. Let's start with Romney's view of President Obama's timetable. At a town hall meeting in Maryland this week, Romney blasted the idea of a preset end date.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADCAST)

MITT ROMNEY: It's unthinkable that you say: Here's the date we're going to leave, regardless of the circumstances, because that only communicates, one, to the enemy, that at some point certain you're leaving. And so they can say, well, let's either hold back until that point or let's be aggressive. But they make their plans based upon knowing your plans, when we don't know theirs.

SHAPIRO: So according to Romney, there should be no firm public finish line to the war. That does not sit well with the American people, who overwhelmingly want the U.S. out of Afghanistan. Romney adviser Rich Williamson says Romney wants the U.S. out, too.

WILLIAMSON: Governor Romney is committed to success of the mission, but he absolutely wants to get the American troops home as soon as possible.

SHAPIRO: Those two goals may not be compatible: On the one hand, stay until we win; on the other hand, bring the troops home as soon as possible. The question is how any leader reconciles those two objectives. Or put differently, without timetables, would a President Romney get the troops out faster or slower than a President Obama? Williamson says Romney would get them home sooner but not because of what he calls an artificial deadline.

WILLIAMSON: We will have a better strategy, better leadership, more firm commitment, and that will result in American troops able to return home sooner.

SHAPIRO: In other words, Williamson says, Americans will come home sooner because the U.S. will win the war more quickly. It's a win-win. And Democratic Congressman Adam Smith of Washington state says it's a fantasy.

REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SMITH: They're trying to get the best of both worlds. Like, you know, it's a bad policy to pull out too soon. Well then, you want to stay longer? Well, I didn't say that.

SHAPIRO: Smith is the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

SMITH: What they're doing is they're taking advantage of the fact that the president is the only one who actually has to implement a policy here. They're sort of - they can imagine a world where, well, we just want things to go better. We wouldn't commit more troops to it.

SHAPIRO: But Romney gets more sympathy from Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

DR. ANTHONY CORDESMAN: I think the question is, is it credible that a presidential candidate can really have enough information to give specifics as distinguished from a broad set of policies? In this case, the answer has to be no.

SHAPIRO: Cordesman says Romney is not being mushy on Afghanistan; he's being prudent.

CORDESMAN: At this point in time, he's not being briefed, except from people outside the system, outside the White House. And he's going to be briefed by people whose perceptions are generally broad and in policy terms, not on the basis of any clear plan.

SHAPIRO: This is a point Romney himself has made, speaking last Sunday on Fox News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

ROMNEY: Before I take a stand on a particular course of action, I want to get the input from the people who are there.

SHAPIRO: That hesitation distinguishes Romney from his Republican opponents. Ron Paul has always said Afghanistan is a mistake. Newt Gingrich recently joined that view, telling CBS's "Face the Nation" it's time for us to leave.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")

NEWT GINGRICH: Our being in the middle of countries like Afghanistan is probably counterproductive.

SHAPIRO: Rick Santorum has said the U.S. needs to commit to winning or get out. But as the primary enters its last stages, the most important contrast may not be between Romney and other Republicans. It's between Romney and President Obama. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.