Editorial Board

Romney’s Vague and Frustrating Views on Afghanistan

Mitt Romney’s position on the war in Afghanistan will be familiar to those who have followed him, or tried to, on health-care reform.

In both cases -- two of the biggest domestic and foreign policy issues of this year’s election campaign -- he criticizes President Barack Obama for essentially having the same policy as Romney himself.

In the case of health care, Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, led the way to enactment of a plan centered on the notorious (to Republicans, anyway) “individual mandate.” He even offered to advise Obama on how a similar plan might be implemented nationally. Romney now says the Obama plan, individual mandate and all, is dreadful, and he promises to stop the whole thing in its tracks his first day as president.

In the case of the war in Afghanistan, started by President George W. Bush and pursued with determination by Obama, Romney has not reversed his former views, possibly because he is new to the foreign policy game and has no former views. His current views, insofar as they can be divined, again appear almost identical to Obama’s -- and where they’re not, are contradictory.

Both men favor a deadline for withdrawal of American troops. Both say that deadline should be the end of 2014. Both acknowledge that some small number of troops will have to remain indefinitely. Romney has also said, as Obama has not, that full withdrawal should happen only when U.S. generals approve or “as soon as that mission is complete.”

So is Romney in favor of full withdrawal by 2014 or is he not? If anything is clear in Afghanistan, it is that the U.S. mission will not be complete by the end of 2014. As president, Romney would face the same dismaying choice that Obama faces: He could pull out our troops and end the war by the deadline (or earlier, as we have advocated). That could risk appearing -- and not just appearing -- to slink away in humiliation. Or, he could stay until “the mission is complete,” which could be many years or even never.

What happens if, as has happened with every other Western mission to civilize Afghanistan in recent centuries, we fail to accomplish our mission in the time we have set for it? Romney says that setting a deadline for withdrawal is a gift to our enemies. They now know that they just have to hold out for a couple more years in a war that has been going on since 2001. If the Obama administration didn’t set a deadline, Republicans would accuse them of failing to have an “exit strategy” in Afghanistan.

Romney -- who, as we know from other issues, has the entire spectrum of possible opinions available to him -- has not clearly said where he stands. This is a policy question, not a military one. “Leave it to the generals” is not an acceptable answer in our democracy.

“We should not negotiate with the Taliban,” Romney says. “We should defeat the Taliban.” On this one aspect of the perplexing Afghanistan war, there is a real disagreement, because the Obama administration is in fact negotiating, albeit episodically, with the Taliban.

This is pretty appalling, but so are all the other options. Of course we should defeat the Taliban. We also should cure world hunger. You don’t get credit for wishing. The U.S. has spent nearly 11 years so far, not to mention hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of young lives, trying to defeat the Taliban. How much American blood and treasure is Romney prepared to spend?

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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