The president is walking a tightrope on the war in Afghanistan. Amid ebbing public support, he has repeatedly underlined that his strategy calls for shifting the burden for the war-torn country's security to Afghan forces next year on the way to a complete withdrawal of American combat forces by the end of 2014. At the same time, he has promised that the draw-down will be done "responsibly" to prevent the return of the Taliban to power and the possibility that al-Qaeda, though badly degraded, could once again use remote areas of Afghanistan as bases to plan attacks on U.S. targets. And he has said that the number of troops that will leave and how quickly they do so will be under constant reassessment and will hinge on the judgment of military commanders.
A major test for Obama's approach will come at the late-May NATO summit in Chicago, when the alliance comes together to hammer out the details of the withdrawal plan, which it endorsed at a gathering in Portugal's capital of Lisbon in November 2010. NATO leaders are notably expected to sketch out a more precise timetable for the transfer of responsibility to Afghan forces. At the same time, some NATO members, like France, could be on a path to withdraw their troops more quickly than had been previously expected, a potential headache for their partners.
Senior administration officials, briefing reporters at the White House this week on condition that they be neither named nor quoted, dismissed any suggestion that Obama needed to step up his efforts to win over war-weary Americans to his approach to the conflict. And they predicted that the president would relish going toe-to-toe with Romney on the issue, painting the Republican as favoring perpetual war.
The Romney campaign did not return a request for comment. But his campaign web site accuses Obama of disregarding the advice of top military commanders -- notably on the size of the troop "surge" he ordered in late 2009 -- and of setting a "politically inspired" withdrawal timetable. (Look for Obama's aides and surrogates to counter that NATO has endorsed the draw-down). It does not set a date by which American forces will come home, a step some Republicans have charged will only encourage Islamist fighters to wait out NATO and convince even locals sympathetic to the West to hedge their bets.
While the Obama campaign did not offer specifics of Romney's alleged distortions, the former Massachusetts governor has infuriated Democrats by constantly accusing the president of apologizing for America -- a charge repeatedly debunked by independent fact-checking organizations. Romney has also accused Obama of failing to impose "crippling" sanctions on Iran in the standoff over its suspect nuclear program, a charge the White House counters by noting that the international sanctions regime on Tehran has toughened to an unprecedented level on this president's watch.
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