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January 18, 2012

Romney’s Afghanistan Plan Comes Into Focus
Posted by Jacob Stokes

Romney at CitadelThus far in the campaign, Mitt Romney has not elucidated a clear position on what he’d do in Afghanistan. Dan Balz pointed this out back in October (I commented on that piece here). Basically, early on and intermittently throughout the campaign, Romney has suggested that he wants to avoid “nation building” and that “only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan’s independence from the Taliban.” But those comments, aimed to pick up on some of the isolationist sentiment in the conservative movement, drew quick rebukes from the establishment. In response, Romney has reverted back to a more hardline position. We saw this last Monday when Romney, directly opposing the advice of his advisors, rejected talks with the Taliban. (David Ignatius has a good explanation of why this zinger was a mistake.)

It seems fair now to assume that Romney’s position on Afghanistan as explained lately and in his campaign documents and official foreign policy speeches represents his actual position, despite equivocations to the contrary. In those places, Romney has laid out several firm strategic principles. Let’s look at each of them and draw conclusions. After all, as Romney has said, “The commander in chief also has to be the educator in chief and has to communicate to the American people why he is making the decisions he’s making.” 

Principle 1: The Taliban—not just al Qaeda and international terrorismmust be completely crushed. Romney’s first strategic principle is that the mission in Afghanistan includes the total defeat of the Taliban, not just the end of international terrorism emanating from Afghanistan. In his Citadel speech, Romney asked, “In Afghanistan, after the United States and NATO have withdrawn all forces, will the Taliban find a path back to power? After over a decade of American sacrifice in treasure and blood, will the country sink back into the medieval terrors of fundamentalist rule and the mullahs again open a sanctuary for terrorists?” Romney explained that, “I will order a full review of our transition to the Afghan military to secure that nation’s sovereignty from the tyranny of the Taliban.” Romney’s foreign policy white paper also says the U.S. goal in Afghanistan is military defeat of the Taliban or at least an Afghan army that can hold them off. “He will order a full interagency assessment of our military and assistance presence in Afghanistan to determine the level required to secure our gains and to train Afghan forces to the point where they can protect the sovereignty of Afghanistan from the tyranny of the Taliban.”

Principle 2: No talks with the Taliban until they stop fighting. The second strategic principle, articulated Monday night, is no talks with the Taliban. As Romney said then, “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.”

Principle 3: The Obama administration’s withdrawal policy is too fast. The third strategic principle is that the current plan for withdrawing ISAF forces is too fast. This is what Romney means when he says that he would listen to the “commanders on the ground” and slow the withdrawal going into 2014. (For an explanation of why this particular construct is misguided, see here and here.)

Given these strategic principles, the promised review by a future President Romney would, almost by definition, require the U.S., to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan and to commit them to stay there indefinitely – call it a “Romney surge.” With no talks on the horizon and a U.S. commitment to their total defeat—combined with the safety of a haven in Pakistan—the Taliban would have strong incentive to keep fighting and no incentive to renounce al Qaeda and international terrorism. More broadly, increasing the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan would continue add stress to our defense budgets and require a larger force or lower troop numbers in Asia or the Middle East. The rebalancing of U.S. foreign policy would stop in its tracks.

It’s time to recognize that, despite his equivocations, Mitt Romney has the outlines of an Afghanistan policy. The media and pundits should take the candidate as his word, follow the strategic outlines he’s established to their logical conclusions and hold the candidate accountable. Right now, those strategic principles augur a forever war in Afghanistan, one that differs from John McCain’s “100 years war” in Iraq only because Romney hasn’t put a figure on his.

We know what Romney thinks. Now he needs to make the case for why that’s in the American national security interest.

Photo: Flickr

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