Presidential Debate Results: Romney Shows Surprising Nuance On Afghanistan


This debate was disappointing for many reasons. It was short on policy and long on lists of problems that need to be solved in the future with no solutions. Half the time, I wasn’t sure if I was watching a foreign policy debate.

That said, Mitt Romney seems to have tweaked his plans for Afghanistan.

Here is Romney’s response on Afghanistan as transcribed by the New York Times:

“Well, we’re going to be finished by 2014. And when I’m president, we’ll make sure we bring our troops out by the end of 2014. The commanders and the generals there are on track to do so. We’ve seen progress over the past several years. The surge has been successful, and the training program is proceeding at pace. There are now a large number of Afghan security forces, 350,000, that are — are ready to step in to provide security. And — and we’re going to be able to make that transition by the end of — of 2014. So our troops’ll come home at that point.”

Obama replied:

“…And we’re now in a position where we can transition out, because there’s no reason why Americans should die when    Afghans are perfectly capable of defending their own country. Now, that transition’s — has to take place in a responsible fashion. We’ve been there a long time, and we’ve got to make sure that we and our coalition partners are pulling out responsibly and giving Afghans the capabilities that they need.”

Obama’s position has remained the same: we will honor the SOFA agreement in Afghanistan and will withdraw most of our troops out of Afghanistan by 2014. This position is deliberately vague to give him wiggle room in the future.

Romney, however, seems to believe we can leave Afghanistan in 2014. He doesn’t say he’ll consult with our generals, as is his usual line, but instead states, in no uncertain terms, that the Afghan security forces are ready to take control of the country and we can leave.

This will be a very interesting discussion the next few days – if either candidate ever speaks about foreign policy again. Typically, candidates and political leaders are criticized for setting timetables for fear that insurgents will wait out our presence and strike after we leave. Governor Romney has hit President Obama on this exact topic in the past.

Afghanistan is complicated; it is a cornerstone issue of American foreign policy and neither candidate has offered satisfactory answers on United States strategy there thus far. In their defense, they haven’t even really been asked. Has anyone ever considered a question on negotiations with the Taliban, the benefits of sanctioning the Haqqani Network and further steps in this vein, or how to bring POW Sgt. Beau Bergdhal back home?

These moderators should have been more upfront in pressing Obama and Romney on real policy in Afghanistan – even if they probably wouldn't get a straight answer from either candidate. 

Check out my live blog of the debate here.

This article was also posted at The Century Foundation.