WASHINGTON, June 20, 2011 -- When 2012 GOP presidential candidate frontrunner Mitt Romney called for U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan at a debate last week, he ignited a discussion -- and perhaps division -- amongst Republicans who support the war and those who are advocating a more rapid drawdown.
"It's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes from our generals," Romney said at the June 13 debate. "Our troops should not go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation. Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan's independence from the Taliban."
Fellow GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman has also come out against a significant continuing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
"If you can't define a winning exit strategy for the American people, where we somehow come out ahead, then we're wasting our money, and we're wasting our strategic resources," Huntsman told Esquire Magazine in its August issue. "It's a tribal state, and it always will be. Whether we like it or not, whenever we withdraw from Afghanistan, whether it's now or years from now, we'll have an incendiary situation... Should we stay and play traffic cop? I don't think that serves our strategic interests."
GOP 2012 presidential candidate and Texas Rep. Ron Paul has perhaps come out the strongest, calling for an immediate withdrawal.
"I wouldn't wait for my generals. I'm the commander in chief. I make the decisions," Paul said at the same June 13 debate. "I tell the generals what to do and I would bring them home as quickly as possible."
The candidates' views contrast with those of prominent Republicans Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who spoke out against a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan.
"I wish that candidate Romney and all the others would sit down with General Petraeus and understand how this counterinsurgency is working and succeeding," McCain said Sunday on ABC News' "This Week."
"And it still has enormous challenges; the Karzai government, the latest problems with Pakistan. But for us to abandon Afghanistan to the tender mercies of the Taliban and radical Islamic extremists, I think, would be repeating the mistakes we made before."
McCain, ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the counterinsurgency strategy was succeeding, and that he was in support of a modest withdrawal of 5,000 to 10,000 troops.
"It's clear that we do need to move into eastern Afghanistan and finish this fight with one more season," he said.
Sen. Graham called precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan a potential national security mistake.
"If we accelerate withdrawal right now because we're war-weary, we're going to lose this war." Graham said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."
"It is in our national security interest to make sure the Taliban never come back. If we fail in Afghanistan, they will kill every moderate who tried to help us, and no one in the future will step up. It will destabilize Pakistan beyond what exists today. It will be a colossal national security mistake," he said.
McCain said he anticipated congressional support for a modest withdraw, but also, a "huge debate."
"I think there's going to be a real struggle. But I remember again, in the summer of 2007, they were within one vote of 60 votes to force a withdrawal. And, again, I would hope that Ryan Crocker and David Petraeus and General Allen, his successor, would be appearing before Congress. I think they can make a case," he said.
Yet polls show a public that is undeniably war-weary, after nearly 10 years of being engaged two wars.
In a June 6 ABC News/Washington Post poll, 73 percent of Americans favored withdrawal of "a substantial number" of U.S. combat forces this summer from Afghanistan. However, amongst Republicans, a majority still say the war is worth the costs, with 59 percent favor withdrawing a substantial number of troops this summer, compared with 89 percent of Democrats and 72 percent of Independents.
Given high public disenchantment with the war, as well as growing concern over the national debt, both Republicans and Democrats have been increasingly focused on the cost of the war.
Outgoing Secretary of Defense Gates admonished those seeking to cut defense spending overall and in Afghanistan.
"I worry that people's whose primary worry and concern is the economy and the deficit will see defense and our engagement around the world as a way to reduce those obligations and that deficits," Gates said Sunday on FOX News, saying defense spending is at its lowest since World War II, besides from a short period in the late 90s.
"We are on the right road, we will end our combat role by 2014," the secretary said on Afghanistan.
"I think it's a mistake to couch the question in terms of the cost of war. What's the cost of failure?" he asked.