In a rare moment of agreement, President Obama and Mitt Romney are carving out the same position on the war in Afghanistan following the alleged massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by a rogue U.S. Army soldier. As the accused soldier could face the death penalty and the Taliban mount revenge attacks on Afghan officials, the president and his presumed chief GOP rival both say the killings are an isolated event that should not affect the war effort in the country, a position that puts them in sharp contrast to Romney's Republican opponents who are calling for a reassessment of the mission.
In an interview with KDKA in Pittsburgh, President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to the war, arguing against a "rush for the exits" as anger swells over the killings. “It’s important for us to make sure that we get out in a responsible way, so that we don’t end up having to go back in,” he said. In an interview on Fox News, Romney answered similarly saying "The actions of a deranged person are not going to shape American foreign policy."
It was a clear break from the opening staked out by Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich who pounced at the opportunity to raise doubts about the American war effort in Afghanistan. On Fox News Sunday, Gingrich said we should be asking whether the U.S. is facing a "harder, deeper problem" that can't be solved with military force. "I think that we’re risking the lives of young men and women in a mission that may frankly not be doable," he said. On Monday, Santorum opposed Obama and Romney's position on the war, but made criticism that punched from the left and right in a sort of "go big or go home," policy. “Given all of these additional problems, we have to either make the decision to make a full commitment, which this president has not done,” Santorum said, “or we have to decide to get out and probably get out sooner given the president’s decision to get out in 2014.” Meanwhile, Ron Paul has maintained his long-held pledge to withdraw troops from the country immediately.
To be sure, Romney's agreement with Obama on the issue has nothing to do with warming up to the commander-in-chief but a lot to do with embracing the military establishment's stance on the war—advice Romney always promised voters he would follow. U.S. military commanders say they still need time and resources for the U.S. strategy to succeed there. Reiterating the position of the Pentagon's top brass, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon said Monday, “The troop surge has made significant progress and we must not undercut the important missions our troops will conduct this summer to expand that progress ... Now is not the time to abandon hope and freedom’s cause, but to persevere.”
Interestingly, off the presidential campaign trail, Republicans and Democrats align in fairly predictable places on the war, as Politico's Seung Min Kim reports: "Growing public fatigue with the decade-long war showed no signs Monday of denting Republican insistence in Congress that American troops should remain in the troubled country until a scheduled 2014 withdrawal."
So, what exactly is Obama's position on Afghanistan? While he urged restraint on calls for a speedy withdrawal, The New York Times reports that at least three options are under consideration. "One plan, backed by Thomas E. Donilon, the national security adviser, would be to announce that at least 10,000 more troops would come home by the end of December, and then 10,000 to 20,000 more by June 2013," report Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt. "Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has been pushing for a bigger withdrawal that would reduce the bulk of the troops around the same time the mission shifts to a support role, leaving behind Special Operations teams to conduct targeted raids."
Under any of the scenarios, The Times reports that Obama's military commanders will be pushing him to keep troops in the country "as long as possible." If reductions are absolutely necessary, they will recommend making them at the end of 2013.