Readying for an expected announcement next week about his 2012 presidential candidacy, former ambassador to China and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman has taken a stand against keeping American troops in Afghanistan.
"If you can't define a winning exit strategy for the American people, where we somehow come out ahead, then we're wasting our money, and we're wasting our strategic resources," Huntsman told Esquire in a recent interview, according to the magazine's blog. "It's a tribal state, and it always will be. Whether we like it or not, whenever we withdraw from Afghanistan, whether it's now or years from now, we'll have an incendiary situation...Should we stay and play traffic cop? I don't think that serves our strategic interests." [See our roundup of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]
Huntsman's foreign policy experience is expected to help him stand out among the growing pool of GOP presidential contenders. But as far as Afghanistan goes, his stance reflects a growing trend in the GOP to advocate for a quicker exit for American soldiers.
President Obama has set July as the starting point for drawing down the 100,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan. He's expected to give more details in the coming weeks as he works with his national security team to develop a withdrawal policy. If recent messaging from outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates is any indication of the administration's stance, that withdrawal may be modest, at least in the next year leading up the 2012 elections. On his recent farewell trip to Afghanistan, Gates warned that withdrawing troops too quickly could reverse the gains that American forces have already made in their effort to hand over security efforts to Afghan forces by 2014.
For several of the Republican candidates, like Huntsman, it appears, a slower withdrawal might not be enough, especially given the circumstances at home. This mirrors a growing sentiment among deficit-wary Republicans in Congress to push for withdrawal on the basis of economic shortages. [See who in the GOP is in and out in 2012.]
Since even before the start of America's 10-year conflict in Afghanistan, the Republican party had generally identified with a strong national security policy and had readily supported military intervention in other countries, like Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, the Republican party appears to be more split on the use of military force.
The perspective of the presumed front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has also turned some GOP heads. At Monday's CNN GOP primary debate, Romney said that while he wants the troops home as soon as possible, he wants the strategy to be "based upon not politics, not based upon economics, but instead based upon the conditions on the ground determined by the generals." Deferring the decision to military personnel, as GOP candidate and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has also done in the past, is a relatively safe stance. But Romney's comments in the debate that American troops "shouldn't go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation" has drawn the ire of more hawkish elements in the GOP. [Read more about national security, terrorism, and the military.]
Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham, considered a neoconservative on the Hill, said he was "incredibly disappointed'' by what he saw at the debate, according to the Wall Street Journal. "No one seemed to have a passion for the idea that we're fighting radical Islam and the center of that battle is Afghanistan,'' he said.
Among other GOP presidential candidates, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a staunch antiwar libertarian, has argued strongly for a rapid pullout of troops. At the debate on Monday, he said he wouldn't wait around for the generals to make the decisions if he were commander-in-chief. "I make the decisions. I tell the generals what to do. I'd bring them home as quickly as possible," he said, adding that he'd also get troops out of Iraq and end military intervention in Libya, Yemen, and Pakistan as well. [Vote now: Is Obama handling the Libya crisis the right way?]
Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich wasn't asked specifically in Monday's debate about Afghanistan. Though he too said that the United States needs to reassess strategy concerning troops and learn from commanders in the field. "We should say to the generals, 'We would like to figure out [how] to get out as rapid as possible with the safety of the troops involved,' " he said. "And we had better find new and very different strategies because this is too big a problem for us to deal with the American ground forces in direct combat."
Minnesota GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann, who announced her candidacy this week, had been critical of Obama's decision to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in 2009. She wasn't given an opportunity to speak on the issue at the debate Monday.
According to Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster who has signed on to work for Huntsman if and when he announces his candidacy, the trend among the GOP candidates to push for troop withdrawal is a reflection of a broader change in public opinion. He says the issue is an opportunity for them "to demonstrate some independent thinking" on a significant challenge. "What they're doing is reflecting the frustration of the American public with what appears to be a war that just keeps going on and on and on," he says.
Once Obama publicizes his strategy for Afghanistan, perhaps as early as next week, voters are likely to hear more from the GOP candidates on how they would proceed differently in Afghanistan beyond 2012.