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With Mitt Romney taking heat for not mentioning Afghanistan in his convention speech, vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan sought to clarify the Republican plan for ending America’s longest war.
President Barack Obama increased troops there in 2010 in order to overwhelm al-Qaida and strengthen and train Afghan security forces. The drawdown of that troop surge began this summer. Obama plans a full withdrawal -- and an end to the war -- in 2014.
That’s one point where Ryan said the Republican ticket agrees with Obama.
"We've always said that we agree with the 2014 deadline. We've always agreed with where we are headed on Afghanistan on 2014," Ryan said on ABC’s This Week on Sept. 9, 2012. "But where we've taken issue is making sure that the generals on the ground get the resources they need throughout the entire fighting season so that they can keep our soldiers safe and operating counterinsurgency strategy. And I fear that this is not what's happening. I fear that there have been more political decisions made in troop strengths during this fighting season.
"And so we beg to differ with the president on parts of his Afghanistan policy. But we support the 2014 deadline."
The end of the decade long conflict is a key point in the fight against terrorism, and Democrats have criticized Romney for waffling on Afghanistan. We thought we’d check Romney's past statements and see if he’s consistently agreed with the timetable set by his opponent.
What he said
One of last year’s Republican primary debates focused on national security. There, Romney expressed clear support for the 2014 deadline.
"The timetable by the end of 2014 is the right timetable for us to be completely withdrawn from Afghanistan, other than a small footprint of support forces," he said in the Nov. 13, 2011, debate.
More recently, at a speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, Romney again said it’s his goal "to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014."
But he also added, as he has numerous other times, that he would "evaluate conditions on the ground and solicit the best advice of our military commanders" when making decisions about American troops.
A few days later, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked if that was a shift in position.
"No, it's the same posture I've had all along," Romney said, "which is that I believe that the right target for us is to withdraw our troops by the end of 2014. At the same time in the speech I gave at the VFW, I said I would however also want to consult with commanders on the ground to make sure that that time line was still the appropriate time line and that is something, which I will continue to point out."
An interview he gave on PBS NewsHour in October 2011 also indicated a soft commitment to the 2014 timetable. Host Judy Woodruff said, "There is an agreement between NATO, the United States and Afghanistan that all foreign troops would be out by 2014. If you're president, would you abide by that agreement?"
Romney answered: "I would listen to the generals. And if that continues to be the view of the ... commanders in the field as they assess the capabilities of the Afghan military, then of course I would pursue that course."
It's clear that Ryan was speaking for the Romney/Ryan ticket in his This Week interview. But we also looked for his own comments on the war. An op-ed, written shortly after he visited Afghanistan, reflected general support for the 2014 timetable while leaving open the possibility of a longer-term commitment:
"A transition plan is in place for Afghan forces to take control of the country's security in 2014," Ryan wrote. "Even as we work toward that point, it is important to remember that our nation's commitment to Afghanistan isn't likely to end there. Our nation's troops and resources will continue to support the Afghan people for years to come - not to engage in nation-building, but to mitigate the risk posed by the region's extremists to our own national security."
An even earlier withdrawal?
At times, Romney has suggested a pullout might be possible before 2014.
At a June debate in New Hampshire:
"It's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes to our generals that we can hand the country over to the ... Afghan military to defend themselves from the Taliban."
And at an August town hall, also in New Hampshire:
"I will do everything in my power to transition from our military to their military as soon as possible, bring our men and women home and do so in a way consistent with our mission, which is to keep Afghanistan from being overrun by a new entity that would allow Afghanistan to be a launching point for terror again like it was on 9/11."
Romney has offered scant agreement with anything else Obama has done on the war front.
His most pointed criticism centered on the 2014 deadline, but Romney objected to Obama’s public announcement of the withdrawal date, not the date itself.
In his speech announcing his current White House run, Romney said it was "wrong" to announce a withdrawal date.
When Defense Secretary Leon Panetta laid out a plan in early 2012 for the transition of U.S. troops from a combat role to a support role, Romney’s condemnation was harsh.
"He announced that. So the Taliban hears it, the Pakistanis hear it, the Afghan leaders hear it," Romney said. "Why in the world do you go to the people that you’re fighting with and tell them the date you’re pulling out your troops? It makes absolutely no sense."
"His naivete is putting in jeopardy the mission of the United States of America and our commitments to freedom," he said. "He is wrong. We need new leadership in Washington."
The Obama campaign counters that Romney’s plans for Afghanistan lack specificity, a complaint we noted in several stories, including from some Republicans.
Ryan claimed that he and Romney have "always agreed" with the 2014 timetable for withdrawing from Afghanistan.
We found numerous instances where Romney expressed support for that deadline. His criticism was not of the date itself but the announcement of it, which he said emboldened the Taliban and endangered troops.
But Romney also has said a troop withdrawal would be conditional on what the situation on the ground is -- an important caveat that could leave him room to ignore the deadline.
Ryan’s statement was accurate but for that one detail. We rate it Mostly True.
ABC’s This Week, Sept. 9, 2012
Romney speech to Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, July 24, 2012, via CQ Transcripts
CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer, July 30, 2012, via CQ Transcripts
PBS NewsHour, Oct. 7, 2011
Republican presidential primary debate, June 13, 2012, via CQ Transcripts
Romney/Ryan campaign town hall, Manchester, N.H., Aug. 20, 2012
Paul Ryan website, "Prospects for Progress if We Stay the Course," Dec. 15, 2011
MittRomney.com, "Remarks: Launching His Presidential Campaign," June 2, 2011
ABC News, "Mitt Romney Calls Leon Panetta’s Afghanistan Withdrawal Announcement ‘Misguided,’" Feb. 1, 2012
Time, "Mitt Romney’s Commander in Chief Problem," July 25, 2012
RealClearPolitics, "Romney Still Lagging in Foreign Policy Strategy," April 17, 2012
Foreign Policy, "Top senators can't explain Romney's Afghanistan policy," July 16, 2012
Email interview with Ryan Williams, Romney campaign, Sept. 10, 2012
Email interview with Kara Carscaden, Obama campaign, Sept. 11, 2012
Council on Foreign Relations, "The Candidates on Afghanistan," accessed Sept. 10, 2012
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