Romney-ology and Afghanistan

Afghanistan was mentioned a total of four times during the GOP convention and only once on the final night, by actor Clint Eastwood. The Oscar winner chided President Obama for making the same mistake as the Russians for believing that the war in Afghanistan was “okay” and “something worth doing.” This absence was notable, with the Associated Press reporting it as the first omission of war by a Republican candidate in an acceptance speech since 1952. Neoconservative and ardent Republican William Kristol and Obama campaign guru David Plouffe both found the absence of any mention of Afghanistan regrettable. It probably did not help matters that Romney had said in a January 2012 primary debate that he thought President Obama talked insufficiently about Afghanistan and Iraq given the sacrifices being made by U.S. troops.

The Romney campaign countered that their candidate had talked about Afghanistan in his address to the American Legion the previous day. Here are the three sentences from that speech:

In Afghanistan, the President has chosen to disregard the counsel of the generals on the ground. I don’t know of a single military advisor to President Obama who recommended the withdrawal plan the President chose, and that puts the success of our soldiers and our mission at greater risk.

What would counterfactual President Romney have done about the war in Afghanistan? Well, candidate Romney agreed with the Obama administration’s initial deadline of December 2014 as “the right timetable for us to be completely withdrawn from Afghanistan, other than a small footprint of support forces.” Where he disagreed was in bringing “surge” forces home in 2012, prior to the end of the fighting season in the approaching winter months. This critique of President Obama for overriding the advice of his generals has been a recurring theme in Romney’s speeches and debate performances since he announced his candidacy in June 2011 in New Hampshire and the August 2011 Republican primary debate in Ames, Iowa. In fact, a quick review of Romney statements in Republican debates and elsewhere demonstrates that this is by far his most common statement regarding Afghanistan. Given Obama has made this apparently flawed decision, it is unclear what is to be done. Romney has not advocated re-surging troops, but instead stated only that he would bring troops home based on the advice of his generals, rather than politics.

The other area of relative clarity in a Romney Afghan policy is his opposition to negotiation with the Taliban, at least so long as they are killing American soldiers. His preferred end-state with regard to the Taliban has been to “defeat them” or “beat them.” Romney’s word choice was a public repudiation of his foreign policy advisor Mitchell Reiss’s limited endorsement of talks with the Taliban.

Not to be too pedantic, but the word choice on Mitt Romney’s campaign website today is instructive that President Romney might be more flexible on this matter than his primary season rhetoric indicated. The website states,

Our mission in Afghanistan is to eliminate al Qaeda from the region and degrade the Taliban and other insurgent groups to the point where they are not existential threats to the Afghan government and do not destabilize Pakistan, with its stock of nuclear weapons. Our objective is to ensure that Afghanistan will never again become a launching pad for terror and to send a message to any other nation that would harbor terrorists with designs on the American homeland. (emphasis added)

Drawing on different data points, the Center for a New American Security’s Andrew Exum has similarly concluded,

In the end, I expect a Romney administration to bite the bullet and negotiate, while claiming that his hard-line campaign rhetoric was meant to avoid giving the Taliban an impression of weakness. He can claim, in other words, that he was merely playing hardball in the run-up to negotiations.

Based on his public statements, it seems Romney does not talk much about Afghanistan because his policy going forward is not substantially different from President Obama’s. Perhaps this policy similarity is driven by both camps’ dispassionate review of the current situation. Or perhaps it is driven by the fact that the war is wildly unpopular, even among Republicans (e.g., Clint Eastwood).

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