Jose Luis Magana/AP
An Army carry team salutes a vehicle containing the remains of an American soldier killed in Afghanistan on March 17, at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Del.
An Army carry team salutes a vehicle containing the remains of an American soldier killed in Afghanistan on March 17, at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Del. Jose Luis Magana/AP
An Army staff sergeant's alleged massacre of Afghan civilians has brought new calls for the United States to leave Afghanistan even before the timetable set by President Obama, who has announced that the U.S. combat mission will be over by the end of 2014.
Some Republican presidential candidates are among those publicly asking if now is the time for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan.
But not Mitt Romney.
The former Massachusetts governor and Republican front-runner for the presidential nomination has criticized Obama for announcing a troop withdrawal timetable, but also has suggested that he would bring U.S. troops home as soon as possible.
That has some Democrats accusing Romney of trying to have it both ways when discussing the 10-year-old war.
Who Would End The War First?
One simple way to compare strategies for Afghanistan is to ask this question: Would a President Romney bring American troops home before President Obama, or after?
"That is a legitimate question," says Rich Williamson, a senior foreign policy adviser to the Romney campaign, and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and special envoy to Sudan." But it doesn't have a quick, simple answer."
The answer is murky and complicated — if it's even there at all.
Let's start with Romney's view of President Obama's timetable.
"It's unthinkable that you say: 'Here's the date we're gonna leave, regardless of the circumstances,' " Romney said at a town hall meeting in Maryland this week. "Because that only communicates ... to the enemy, that at some point certain you're leaving. ... They make their plans based upon knowing your plans, when we don't know theirs."
Then-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney greets Afghan President Hamid Karzai on May 21, 2005, at Logan Airport in Boston.
Then-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney greets Afghan President Hamid Karzai on May 21, 2005, at Logan Airport in Boston. Lisa Poole/AP
So according to Romney, there should be no firm, public, finish line to the war.
Waning U.S. Public Support
That does not sit well with the American people, according to public opinion polls. A USA Today/Gallup poll taken after the alleged massacre of 17 civilians on March 11 found that half of Americans favored a U.S. troop withdrawal before the end of 2014.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken just before news of the alleged massacre had found that 60 percent of Americans said the war wasn't worth its costs.
"Gov. Romney is committed to success of the mission, but he absolutely wants to get the American troops home as soon as possible," says Williamson.
Those two goals may not be compatible: On the one hand, stay until the U.S. wins; on the other hand, bring the troops home as soon as possible.
The question is how any leader reconciles those two objectives.
Or put differently, without timetables, would a President Romney get the troops out faster or slower than a President Obama?
Williamson says Romney would get them home sooner — but not because of what he calls an artificial deadline.
"We will have a better strategy, better leadership, more firm commitment, and that will result in American troops able to return home sooner," says Williamson.
In other words, Americans would come home sooner because the U.S. would win the war more quickly under a President Romney than under President Obama, says Williamson.
Impossible To Know
"They're trying to get the best of both worlds," says Rep. Adam Smith, D- Wash., top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. "Like, you know, 'It's a bad policy to pull out too soon.' 'Well then, you want to stay longer?' 'Well, I didn't say that.' "
Smith claims that Romney and his advisers are "taking advantage of the fact that the president's the only one who actually has to implement a policy here."
But Romney gets more sympathy from Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.
"When you push for specifics, I think the question is, is it credible that a presidential candidate can really have enough information to give specifics as distinguished from a broad set of policies?" says Cordesman. "In this case, the answer has to be no."
Cordesman says Romney is not being mushy on Afghanistan; he's being prudent.
"At this point in time, he's not being briefed, except from people outside the system, outside the White House," says Cordesman. "And he's going to be briefed by people whose perceptions are generally broad and, in policy terms, not on the basis of any clear plan."
This is a point Romney himself has made, speaking last Sunday on Fox News.
"Before I take a stand on a particular course of action," said Romney, "I want to get the input from the people who are there."
Where The Others Stand
That hesitation distinguishes Romney from his Republican opponents.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul has always said Afghanistan is a mistake.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich recently joined that view, telling CBS' Face the Nation it's time for U.S.troops to leave Afghanistan.
"I think we need to reconsider the whole region," Gingrich said. "We need to understand that our being in the middle of countries like Afghanistan is probably counterproductive. We're not prepared to be ruthless enough to force them to change, and yet we're clearly an alien presence."
And former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has said the U.S. needs to either recommit to winning in Afghanistan, or get out now.
But as the primary season enters its last stages, the most important contrast may not be between Romney and other Republicans. It may be between Romney and President Obama.