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Guest Post: Has he really thought it through? Mitt Romney’s Pronouncements on Afghanistan

May 24, 2012

By Sorina Ioana Crisan*

Romney and Karzai, Boston, 2005

With the American voter focusing on several pressing matters (i.e., economy, jobs, budget deficit, health care, etc.) it is unlikely that either Romney or Obama’s foreign policy pronouncements on Afghanistan (issue ranked 14th in a recent Pew Research Center poll) will be a determining factor in the 2012 U.S. presidential elections.

Media coverage of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign highlights the candidate’s inconsistent views on a prospective United States foreign policy approach towards Afghanistan. Following is a chronologic look at some of the most important statements made by Romney, and his campaign co-chair, over the past seventeen months.  In January 2011, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney went on his second trip to Afghanistan. He previously visited the country in 2006, in preparation for his first 2008 presidential campaign. While in Kabul, he met President Hamid Karzai, General David Petraeus and other top leaders. He also met with about 120 members of the Afghan Youth National Service. When asked by a young Afghan whether the U.S. was going to pull out of the country soon, he stated:

“It is my desire and my political party’s desire to support the people of Afghanistan and not to leave…So we look to you to tell us the best ways that we can support you.’’

Six months later, during June 2011 Republican GOP presidential debate, Romney expressed a new opinion:

“It’s time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes [from] our generals that we can hand the country over to the Taliban military in a way that they’re able to defend themselves. Excuse me, the Afghan military to defend themselves from the Taliban. That’s an important distinction…I think we’ve learned some important lessons in our experience in Afghanistan. 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.

But I also think we’ve learned that our troops shouldn’t go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation. Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan’s independence from the Taliban.”

Then, during the January 16, 2012, Republican debate, Romney stated the following in response to the Obama administration’s peace talks with the Taliban:

“The right course for America is not to negotiate with the Taliban while the Taliban are killing our soldiers. The right course is to recognize they’re the enemy of the United States. It’s the vice president [Joe Biden] who said they’re not the enemy of the United States. The vice president’s wrong. They are the enemy. They’re killing American soldiers….”  “We should defeat the Taliban…” “We go anywhere they are and we kill them.”

Romney’s January 2011 view, supporting a long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan, was made public at a time when President Obama’s administration announced plans to reduce the number of U.S. troops starting July 2011 and then hand over security to the Afghans by the end of 2014. Romney’s June 2011 statement, to bring the troops home as soon as the generals advise it, was criticized for not endorsing current U.S. – Afghanistan strategy, nor completely rejecting it either. His January 2012 remarks, to not negotiate with the Taliban, were made at the same time when President Obama sent U.S. diplomats to Qatar to try and facilitate those negotiations.

The last statement opposes even recommendations made by Romney’s campaign advisors, which emphasize that after such a long war, the only option is to negotiate with some elements of the Taliban and to aspire towards political settlement. One of Romney’s advisors stated, under anonymity, that when it comes to Afghanistan, “none of us could quite figure out what he was advocating.” He further added that it is unclear what Romney’s answers will be to questions, such as: “Do we stay another decade? How many forces, and how long, does that take? Do we really want to go into the general election telling Americans that we should stay a few more years to eradicate the whole Taliban movement?”

Leslie H. Gelb, Council on Foreign Relations President Emeritus, criticizes Romney for “changing his own mind on the war from hard to soft to something else.” He argues that if the trend continues, Romney will try to incorporate most, if not all-Republican factions:

“In other words, there will be a surplus of tough talk, excessive military spending, and great caution in getting involved in new and extended land wars.”

David Gordon, head of research at Eurasia Group and former senior U.S. government official, has a different opinion. He says that foreign policy differences between President Obama and Mitt Romney are mostly politics.

“I do think that a Romney Presidency would be a little more robust on the military side, but the overall themes of U.S. policy would be broadly parallel under President Romney…I don’t believe that a President Romney would be all that different from a President Obama. Just like…I would argue, that President Obama had a lot more continuity in his foreign policies, particularly after the first year or so, than it appeared he would with his attacks on President Bush, in the last election.”

Regardless whom the 45th U.S. president will be, it is expected he will foster an ongoing relationship with Afghanistan. That is due to the recently signed U.S. – Afghan strategic partnership agreement, which assures military and economic/civic ties between the two countries for ten years beyond NATO’s 2014-scheduled withdrawal from Afghanistan. Furthermore, this month, President Obama designated Afghanistan as a Major Non-NATO Ally.

The current U.S. president believes the aforementioned agreement is “a responsible transition to Afghans taking control of their own country.” In contrast, on May 2, 2012, Tim Pawlenty, Romney campaign co-chair, expressed that former Governor Romney has a different view of the agreement, as he does not believe deadlines should be placed ahead of conditions on the ground.

“In terms of this agreement that was signed, Governor Romney feels it’s important to define the mission ahead in terms of strategic outcomes, not in terms of days or months on the calendar. And those strategic outcomes include making sure al Qaeda is defeated, making sure the insurgencies including, by the way, groups like the Taliban are incapable of reforming in a way that threatens Afghan security or the situation next door in Pakistan. And making sure that the Afghan security forces and police forces have enough capacity to be able to make sure that the country is at least reasonably stable…But what we don’t like is the president putting these arbitrary deadlines rather than conditions on the ground governing America’s position in Afghanistan…Governor Romney has said 2014 may be an appropriate timetable, but let’s not announce it ahead of time for those who don’t have America’s interest at heart can plan around it. Don’t give them the blueprint in public with timelines attached to it.”

Unlike other Republican presidential hopefuls, Romney outlined his foreign policy strategy in an October 7, 2011, white paper, An American Century: A Strategy to Secure America’s Enduring Interests and Ideals.  The paper does not exhibit a well-defined vision for an Afghanistan foreign policy. That coupled with Romney’s inconsistent public remarks, makes it impossible to predict challenges and implications resulting from his possible choice of U.S. – Afghan policy.

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For further information about differences and similarities between President Obama and Mr. Romney please access: http://2012-presidential-candidates.findthedata.org/compare/1-5/Barack-Obama-vs-Mitt-Romney

*Sorina Ioana Crisan is currently a research intern with Lund University Center for Middle Eastern Studies.  She has a dual MA from Boston University in International Relations (Security Studies with focus on current U.S./German intervention in Afghanistan) and International Communications.  She has completed internships with Jane’s Defence Weekly and the Center for a New American Security, Washington, D.C. and has written articles for JDW and Tom Rick’s Best Defense Blog.   Contact her at: Sorina.Crisan@cme.lu.se

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