Opinion: War policy challenges Romney

This week will mark the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2011. As a direct result of those attacks, the United States began a war in Afghanistan against the terrorists — al-Qaeda — and the Taliban, which harbored them. 

Yet the GOP nominees for president and vice president, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan did not even mention the word “Afghanistan” in their acceptance speeches at the party’s convention in Tampa, Fla. And there was no mention of the war in Afghanistan in the convention’s keynote address by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Even former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a primetime address, said nothing about the war.

Conservative Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and my fellow Fox News analyst, recently wrote with disgust about his fellow Republicans going blind to a major war effort. 

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“Has it ever happened that we’ve been at war and a presidential nominee has ignored, in this kind of major and formal speech, the war and our warriors?”

In fact, the deaths of American soldiers in Afghanistan are increasing. The number of American soldiers killed is now 2,000. According to a report from The New York Times, it took nine years for the U.S. military to report the first 1,000 deaths from the Afghanistan war. 

The second 1,000 were killed in the past 27 months largely due to the fighting after President Obama sent an additional 33,000 troops, in a surge of power intended to reaffirm America’s commitment to victory.

The war got more attention in Charlotte as Democrats skewered Republicans for ignoring the war and U.S. soldiers there. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) hammered Romney: “It isn’t fair to say Mitt Romney doesn’t have a position on Afghanistan … he was against setting a date for withdrawal, then he said it was right, and then he left the impression that maybe it was wrong to leave this soon. … Mr. Romney, here’s a little advice: Before you debate Barack Obama on foreign policy, you’d better finish the debate with yourself.”

The Afghanistan war is now the longest war in American history at 10 years and 11 months. 

Obama has announced plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and transfer security responsibility to the Afghan army and police. As part of this effort, some 30,000 U.S. troops withdrew this year, leaving about 70,000 still in Afghanistan. Both Romney and vice presidential nominee Ryan have said they agree with this timeline. 

But leading Republicans in Congress disagree with that view.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and John McCain (Ariz.) want the United States to stay until the Afghan government is stable and able to hold the ground the United States has gained in the fight against radicals. 

Graham recently said he wants to get the country out of the war but said: “it’s important that we leave behind a stable Afghanistan — and our national security will not be judged by the day the last troop leaves. It will be judged by what we left behind. Obama never talks about winning; he only talks about leaving.”

But that criticism from Republicans applies just as easily to Romney. 

He agrees with the president’s plan to pull out by the end of 2014. He only disagrees with the part of the plan that calls for moving 23,000 of those troops out by this Sept. 30.

He has not offered an alternative timetable. 

A July 2012 poll from Quinnipiac University found that 60 percent of Americans, including 47 percent of Republicans, believe the United States should not be involved in Afghanistan now. A Pew poll earlier this year found that 57 percent want to bring the troops home as soon as possible and only 35 percent want them to stay until the country is stabilized.

The polls reveal the real reason for the lack of talk about the war at the GOP convention. The party’s leaders are out of step with public opinion. And they do not have a single coherent alternative policy position on Afghanistan. Their only focus is being critical of the president.

On Oct. 22, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will meet for the final presidential debate, a foreign policy debate. Obama enters that debate with a unique historical advantage for a Democrat on national security and war.

And the two men are in basic general agreement on the path forward in Afghanistan. So there is little room for Romney to attack the president on this war.  But by agreeing with each other, the two presidential candidates are in disagreement with the vast majority of the American people who want to get out as soon as possible. 

It makes you wonder what would happen if Mitt Romney announced in that debate that he will bring all troops home from Afghanistan within 90 days of his first day as president. 

Now that would be a real October surprise. It might turn off some in his party. But it will put him in line with a majority of Americans. It will put Obama on the defensive and it also might save the lives of a few hundred more American soldiers. 

Maybe President Obama will come up with the idea first.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.