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Romney, Santorum hedge on future U.S. role in Afghanistan

Leading Republican presidential contenders Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum bobbed and weaved in TV interviews Sunday over the future of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, blaming President Obama for worsening conditions there but refusing to say whether they would speed up the American withdrawal.

Romney, appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” declined repeated entreaties to say that he would escalate the current U.S. role in the NATO force, or alternately, pull out faster than Obama’s 2014 withdrawal deadline, as a third GOP candidate, Newt Gingrich, has suggested.

Santorum, interviewed on ABC’s “This Week,” said that he agrees “in some respects” with Gingrich. “If the game plan is, we’re leaving, irrespective of whether we’re going to succeed or not, then why are we still there? Let’s either commit to winning or let’s get out,” he said.

But Santorum wouldn’t say which of those options he would pick.

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“If you commit to winning, you change the entire dynamic in the region,” the former senator said. “That may not mean the heavy footprint that we have in Afghanistan right now.” Santorum said he would “work with our experts in that area to see what troop complement we would need, and work with the Afghan government to make sure that we commit to them to be successful, at whatever, whatever that means, whatever that’s necessary to accomplish.”

Both candidates laid part of the blame on Obama’s decision to set a timeline for ending U.S. military involvement.

According to Romney, Obama also has not spent enough time speaking with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Last week, Karzai discussed the situation in his country with visiting Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and had a follow-up phone conversation Friday with Obama.

“The president needs to be more engaged,” Romney said, deploring what he called Obama’s “relative detachment from our military commanders there.” If he were president, he added, he would speak with Karzai “day-to-day.”

Romney used the word “failure” in describing the situation in Afghanistan, but the former Massachusetts governor gave a rambling response to host Bret Baier’s repeated efforts to pin him down on whether he would speed up the U.S. pullout.

“The timing of withdrawal is going to be dependent upon what you hear from the conditions on the ground -- that you understand by speaking with commanders there, as well as, of course, the people in Afghanistan and their ability to maintain their sovereignty and to have the capacity, to have a military that can stand up to the challenges they face. The timetable, the guidelines, that continue to be into effect, unless, of course, there are changes in conditions that suggest a faster withdrawal. But recognize, that ultimately, the independence and the security of Afghanistan is going to have to be secured and maintained by the Afghans themselves. We’re not going to stay there forever,” Romney said.

Asked by Baier if he was taking a stand, Romney replied, “Well, before I take a stand on a particular course of action, I want to get the input from the people who are there.” Romney went on to say that “it’s very plain to see that the conditions there are not going very well, and I lay part of the blame for that on the lack of leadership on the part of our president.” Obama “certainly takes part of the blame for the failure there, and we’re going to get our troops out as soon as we possibly can.”

paul.west@latimes.com

Romney, Santorum hedge on future U.S. role in Afghanistan


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