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Romney’s remarks on Afghanistan exit stir GOP alarm

Some in party see risk of muddying support for war

SUPPORTIVE OF AFGHAN WITHDRAWAL “We’ve learned that our troops shouldn’t go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation,” Romney said. SUPPORTIVE OF AFGHAN WITHDRAWAL
“We’ve learned that our troops shouldn’t go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation,” Romney said.
By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / June 16, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney, during a debate Monday night, appeared much more open to withdrawing troops from Afghanistan than he had been when he was in the war-torn country this winter. The stance irked some hawkish Republicans who worry that Romney and other candidates advocating withdrawal are abandoning their party orthodoxy.

When asked Monday whether it was time to bring combat troops home from Afghanistan, Romney said, “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.’’

“We’ve learned that our troops shouldn’t go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation,’’ he added. “Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan’s independence from the Taliban.’’

The comments illustrate a potential shift within a Republican Party that has long placed an emphasis on national security issues. They are also spurring intraparty disagreements over the direction of not only the war effort, but of the role of the United States in international conflicts.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, took issue with Romney’s comments, saying he was taking Republicans in the wrong direction.

“I was incredibly disappointed,’’ Graham told the Wall Street Journal, referring to the debate. “No one seemed to have a passion for the idea that we’re fighting radical Islam and the center of that battle is Afghanistan.’’

Regarding Romney’s comment that only Afghans can “win Afghanistan’s independence,’’ according to the Hill newspaper Graham retorted, “This is not a war of independence. This is a war to protect America’s national vital security interests.’’ Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, was even more critical. “I’ve really lost faith in Mitt Romney,’’ he said in an interview. “Something happens to someone when they become the front-runner . . . For him to make a statement like that questions whether or not we should be there, and that we should get out — it’s not going to work. To me, that statement was a killer for his nomination bid.’’

President Obama is currently reviewing a prior commitment to authorize a reduction of troops starting next month, with the goal of handing over security to the Afghans by the end of 2014. Romney aides stress that he opposes setting a specific date for withdrawing troops.

His recent comment appears to deviate at least slightly from remarks he made in Afghanistan in January, when Romney said that he supported a longer-term US presence there and assured a group of about 120 young Afghans that the United States would stand by them.

“It is my desire and my political party’s desire to support the people of Afghanistan and not to leave,’’ Romney said. The Globe reported on the comments during his trip, after viewing a video of remarks that were not open to the media.

Romney advisers said that he was not switching positions and that his desire to not leave Afghanistan was a reference more broadly to US support. “He was suggesting, even after we draw down the troops, we should have a robust economic and diplomatic presence there to help the Afghan government,’’ said Mitchell Reiss, a former diplomat who is a foreign policy adviser to Romney’s campaign and was with Romney on the January trip. “He has a very clear understanding of the strategic importance of this country in this fight.’’

Reiss highlighted several areas of disagreement that Romney has with the Obama administration’s handling of the war in Afghanistan: allowing Hamid Karzai to win an election that many foreign observers considered rigged, announcing a timetable for withdrawal, and not having a broader civilian component to the war mission.

“You can’t have an open-ended commitment forever but you have to put down some markers and make sure the Afghans take ownership,’’ Reiss said. “There are strategic consequences and you just can’t bring them home willy nilly.’’

Political observers say that Romney appears to be carefully calibrating his position to try to appease both those who are growing uneasy about the ongoing war and those who want to see him as strong on national security issues.

“It does strike me that he’s backing away from the unconditional support he had in January, there’s no question in my mind,’’ said Richard Eichenberg, a political science professor at Tufts University. “The care with which he phrased his comments in the debate suggests that, on the one hand he’s adapting to the growing disenchantment within the Republican Party over the war, while at the same time taking great care not to suggest he’s weak on the war.’’

Presidential candidate and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty has said it’s not yet time to withdraw, but he also said the mission was not to stay indefinitely to rebuild the country.

Representative Ron Paul of Texas took perhaps the hardest line. “I’d bring them home as quickly as possible,’’ Paul said. “And I would get them out of Iraq as well. And I wouldn’t start a war in Libya.’’

Jon Huntsman, who until recently was the US ambassador to China and plans to announce a presidential bid next week, has said the United States should reduce 100,000 troops in Afghanistan to 15,000. “It’s a tribal state, and it always will be,’’ he told Esquire Magazine, in an except released yesterday from its August issue. “Should we stay and play traffic cop? I don’t think that serves our strategic interests.’’

Theo Emery of the Globe staff contributed. Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.