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Romney embraces date to hand over power in Afghanistan


Updated 4:45 p.m. - Mitt Romney re-emphasized Tuesday a shared goal with President Barack Obama, to transfer control of Afghanistan to that country’s security forces by the end of 2014.

Speaking Tuesday before the annual meeting of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Romney noted his past criticism of the pace of the drawdown of U.S.-led security forces in Afghanistan, which was set to culminate in a handover of responsibility to Afghan forces in 2014.

But the presumptive Republican nominee said that it would be his own goal, as well, to complete a transition of power by 2014 – a stance that is difficult to distinguish from the president’s.

“As president, my goal in Afghanistan will be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014,” he said in Nevada.

Romney didn’t offer specifics when it comes to what that would mean for the precise level of U.S. forces that would remain in Afghanistan over the course of the transition, relying on his usual rhetoric about deferring to the judgment of commanders on the ground.

“I will evaluate conditions on the ground and solicit the best advice of our military commanders,” he said. “And I will affirm that my duty is not to my political prospects, but to the security of the nation."

In a separate fact sheet, the Republican’s campaign said that Romney, as president, would order an interagency review of the transition in Afghanistan during his first 100 days in office.

The Afghanistan announcement was just one part of a multifaceted speech outlining the presumptive Republican nominee’s foreign policy vision before he embarks on a tour of the United Kingdom, Israel and Poland meant to burnish his credentials as commander-in-chief. Still, Romney’s pronouncement today on Afghanistan would seem, if nothing else, to mark a significant departure in the rhetoric he’s used toward the situation in Afghanistan.

But readers might be forgiven for reading Romney's speech today as a more forgiving assessment of the way Obama has managed the war in Afghanistan. Obama first launched a surge in troops in Afghanistan, a move that was generally applauded by Republicans.

Before officially launching his current presidential bid, Romney said in a March 2010 interview with NPR: “I was pleased that the president made the decision to take action to root out the Taliban in Afghanistan. I think he made a couple of errors, even in doing so, that makes it a little more difficult - or potentially substantially more difficult for our troops to be successful there.”

He continued, “Number one, when the military came and said we need a minimum of 40,000 more troops, I would not have been inclined to cut that to 30,000. My inclination would be to give him at least 40 or maybe 50,000. Number two, I would not have announced the date we're going to start pulling people out. I think that makes it more difficult at the time you're just adding troops.”

But his decision to withdraw those troops by September of this year had turned into the centerpiece of Romney's criticism of Obama.

Romney said in his June 2, 2011 speech launching his current White House run that Obama was “wrong” to announce a date by which U.S. troops would withdraw from Afghanistan.

Aides to the presumptive Republican presidential nominee said that Romney's disagreement with Obama stems from the pace of the withdrawal of troops, particularly in 2012, during the height of the fighting season in Afghanistan. Romney, aides said, would have more closely heeded military leaders' guidance to keep surge troops there longer.

But Romney shares an end goal of having only a small level of troops in Afghanistan at the time of the handover, pending the success in standing up the Afghan government.

"The timetable, by the end of 2014, is the right timetable for us to be completely withdrawn from Afghanistan, other than a small footprint of support forces," he said at a Nov. 13, 2011 presidential debate.

The pace of withdrawal Romney would pursue as president is unclear, though; commanders haven't issued their recommendations, and Romney's words at a Jan. 2012 debate underscored just how uncertain the conditions that would warrant a drawdown can be.

But Romney otherwise said he opposed negotiations with the Taliban that would end the fighting in Afghanistan. The solution, he said at an NBC News debate on Jan. 23, 2012, was to defeat the Taliban outright – a strategy that would seem to open the door to a potentially interminable engagement in Afghanistan and, for that matter, Pakistan.

"By beating them," Romney said of his strategy to end the fighting in the region. "By standing behind our troops and making sure that we have transitioned to the Afghan military, a capacity for them to be successful in holding off the Taliban."

"Our mission there is to be able to turn Afghanistan and its sovereignty over to a military of Afghan descent -- Afghan people that can defend their sovereignty. And that is something which we can accomplish in the next couple of years," he added.