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Romney goes silent on Afghanistan

Mitt Romney has muted his attacks on President Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan despite several recent milestones regarding the future of the conflict.

The presumptive GOP presidential nominee declined to criticize Obama after he announced the U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership agreement earlier this month that aims to end the war and give security control to the Afghans in 2014. 

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And Romney did not focus on Afghanistan at all during last weekend’s NATO summit, instead writing an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune that blamed Obama for a potential $1 trillion cut in military spending over the next decade.

The silence on Afghanistan is noticeable from Romney, given his sharp criticism of Obama on the issue during the GOP primaries. At the time, he accused the president of ignoring the advice of his military commanders and knocked him for announcing a timetable for withdrawal.

But now, with the Afghanistan war tumbling to all-time lows in public support, it has become difficult for Romney to contrast his policies with Obama’s without advocating a slower withdrawal — and a longer war.

Obama has blunted some of the GOP criticism by saying that he will not announce any more troop withdrawals — the most frequent GOP point of attack — until after the surge troops leave this fall.

“[Romney’s] got no place to go on this, and I think if he’s smart he’ll be quiet,” said Lawrence Korb, a former senior Pentagon official and senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress. “The American people, even the Republicans, have turned against the war. They think it’s gone on long enough.”

Even critics of Obama’s Afghanistan policies acknowledge it’s unlikely to become a liability for him.

“By the time the weaknesses and the risks of Obama’s policy in Afghanistan are clear, it’ll be after the election,” said James Phillips, a senior fellow at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation. “I think that’s part of the administration’s strategy, which I think was calculated to a political timetable from the beginning.”

A Romney campaign official said the former governor is opposed to the “politicized timetable” for withdrawing surge troops this year, but believes the 2014 transition date is appropriate because it’s what the military commanders have recommended.

The official declined to discuss why Romney has not spoken out on recent developments on Afghanistan, and would not say how much Romney would talk about the issue during the campaign.

Afghanistan is part of what’s shaping up to be an atypical year for the presidential campaign and foreign policy, normally a Republican strength. But this year Obama has a number of accomplishments to tout, including the death of Osama bin Laden and the end of the Iraq war.

Obama has led Romney by double digits in early election polls on questions about who is better suited to handle foreign policy.

Of course, the election has been mostly focused on the economy. Many have argued that Romney should be spending all of his time talking about jobs and the economy — because everything else detracts from his message.

“Romney is best talking about the economy and keeping the discussion on the economy, because I think that’s Obama’s biggest weakness,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist and columnist for The Hill. “To get into an unnecessary brawl on Afghanistan probably doesn’t help them.”

Still, Romney hasn’t given Obama a free pass foreign policy. He said that if Obama were reelected, Iran would obtain a nuclear bomb, and has lambasted his “hot mic” comments to then Russian-President Dmitry Medvedev in March, in which Obama spoke of having “flexibility” after the election.

Romney’s op-ed ahead of last weekend’s NATO summit indicates his campaign might shift his focus on national security to cuts in defense spending.

Romney highlighted the $500 billion in automatic cuts the Pentagon faces through sequestration, calling Obama “reckless” for threatening to veto a reversal and warning that the United States is “on a path to a hollow military.”

Sequestration is almost assuredly not going to get solved until the lame-duck session of Congress after the election, so the Romney campaign knows it will still be an issue in the fall.

Defense analysts say Romney has been vague about what his policies would be in Afghanistan if he were president, and he took heat on the issue from fellow Republicans during the primaries.

In a June 2011 debate, Romney said: “Our troops shouldn’t go off and try to fight a war of independence for another nation. Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan’s independence from the Taliban.”

The remark drew quick criticism from hawks in the Senate, including Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainLawmakers worry about rise of fake video technology Democrats put Dreamers and their party in danger by playing hardball Trump set a good defense budget, but here is how to make it better MORE (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamCongress punts fight over Dreamers to March Pence tours Rio Grande between US and Mexico GOP looks for Plan B after failure of immigration measures MORE (R-S.C.). Graham said that the war was not for independence but to protect U.S. security interests, and added a jab: “From the party’s point of view, the biggest disaster would be to let Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaOvernight Energy: Dems ask Pruitt to justify first-class travel | Obama EPA chief says reg rollback won't stand | Ex-adviser expects Trump to eventually rejoin Paris accord Overnight Regulation: Trump to take steps to ban bump stocks | Trump eases rules on insurance sold outside of ObamaCare | FCC to officially rescind net neutrality Thursday | Obama EPA chief: Reg rollback won't stand Ex-US ambassador: Mueller is the one who is tough on Russia MORE become Ronald Reagan and our people become Jimmy Carter.”

McCain declined to discuss Romney’s comments on Afghanistan on Tuesday, telling The Hill that he hasn’t discussed Afghanistan with Romney recently.

McCain criticized the president for only talking “about ending the war,” saying it was “disgraceful” that he did not mention victory talking about Afghanistan.

Obama still faces some risks on Afghanistan during the campaign, as 23,000 U.S. troops will be withdrawing this summer in the midst of the Afghan fighting season.

But in recent polls, the public has backed an even quicker withdrawal than Obama is planning.

“If Afghanistan should go to hell in a handbasket, he might be able to say something,” Korb said of Romney. “But not much is going to change [in the coming months].”