WASHINGTON — As Afghanistan seizes more of the political spotlight, the Republican presidential candidates are quick to criticize President Barack Obama’s handling of the war but struggle to explain how they would change the strategy they would inherit.
GOP front-runner Mitt Romney says Obama has exhibited “failed leadership” and should not have set a timetable for ending the war. But Romney won’t say whether he would scrap the president’s plans to bring the war to a close by the end of 2014. Rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have questioned whether the U.S. should be in Afghanistan at all, but neither has plans for withdrawing tens of thousands of American troops.
The Republican reluctance to outline specific policy positions is evidence of the complex nature of managing the decade-long war as public support dwindles, and concerns that detailed campaign promises could pigeonhole a candidate if he goes on to win the White House.
It’s a role reversal for the parties from 2008, when a Republican president was mired in a long and unpopular war and Democratic candidates, including Obama, tried to convince voters that they should take the reins.
But the political calculus for the current crop of Republicans is more complicated than it was for Obama in 2008. Obama opposed the Iraq war from the start and his election-year promise to bring it to an end put him in lockstep with the rest of his party.
This year’s GOP candidates, however, find their party’s hawkish tendencies butting up against the public’s growing impatience with the Afghan war.
Six in 10 Americans see the war as not worth its costs, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this month. Opposition to the war is bipartisan, and for the first time, the Post-ABC poll showed more Republicans “strongly” see the war as not worth fighting than say the opposite.
Yet many in the GOP have agreed with some of Obama’s aggressiveness in Afghanistan, from increasing U.S. troop levels to ordering the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the attacks that drew the U.S. into the war in the first place.
Defense analyst Michael O’Hanlon said those actions have made it harder for Republican to come up with a distinctive and specific alternative war strategy.
“I think it reflects that this is not an issue that is so simple that reflexively turning to a Republican line of attack is going to be the answer,” said O’Hanlon, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.
But the recent series of troubling episodes in Afghanistan, including the accidental burning of Qurans by U.S. forces and the alleged killing of 17 Afghan civilians by an American soldier, have focused fresh attention on how the U.S. plans to get out of Afghanistan and whether a Republican president would pursue a different course than Obama.
The president’s withdrawal plan, in coordination with NATO allies and Afghanistan, calls for the U.S. to move into a support role in Afghanistan in 2013 and hand over security responsibility to the Afghans by the end of 2014. The administration is negotiating with Afghanistan about a U.S. presence there after 2014 and is trying to reach a political breakthrough with the Taliban.
Republicans have criticized the 2014 benchmark, saying Obama’s decision to put a timetable on withdrawal puts U.S. gains in Afghanistan at risk.
“Why in the world do you go to the people that you’re fighting with and tell them the date you’re pulling out your troops? It makes absolutely no sense,” Romney said in February.
Santorum said it “gave them something which you should never give an enemy, which is hope.”
But neither candidate has said whether he would abandon the NATO-backed 2014 withdrawal plan, which would be well under way by the time either took office in January. Nor has either said whether his own war strategy would keep the U.S. fighting in Afghanistan past that date.
Romney, who is on track to win the nomination, has been especially vague about how many U.S. forces he would keep in Afghanistan and for how long. He has both pledged to ensure a “force level necessary to secure our gains and complete our mission successfully” while also promising to bring troops home “as soon as humanly possible.”
The former Massachusetts governor says he can’t get more specific until he gets guidance from the military, and plans to conduct a full interagency war review upon taking office.
Democrats say Romney’s lack of clarity on Afghanistan will be a liability in a general election race against Obama.
“What’s clear is that he’s lacking a core set of experiences so he gets pulled back and forth between the ‘let’s double down’ strategy and public opinion polls that think that 10 years is enough,” said Heather Hurlburt, a foreign policy expert who worked in the Clinton administration and now heads the National Security Network, a progressive organization.
Romney has drawn one clear distinction with the president. He opposes Taliban negotiations and says the U.S. should not hold talks with a group trying to kill American soldiers.
As Romney seeks the right strategy for success in Afghanistan, Santorum and Gingrich have started to question whether there is even a mission in Afghanistan worth completing.
“We have to either make a decision to make a full commitment, which this president has not done, or we have to decide to get out and probably get out sooner” than planned in 2014, Santorum said in a recent interview.
Gingrich has said the U.S. is “risking the lives of young men and women in a mission that may, frankly, not be doable.”
Neither candidate, however, has said how those concerns would translate into an actual war strategy or whether he would speed up Obama’s withdrawal timetable if elected.
The only Republican contender with a clearly articulated war strategy is Texas Rep. Ron Paul. The Libertarian-leaning Paul long has opposed the war and says he would quickly end the war once in the White House.