GOP lawmakers push Romney to break from Obama's Afghanistan strategy

Republican defense hawks are urging Mitt Romney to separate himself from President Obama on Afghanistan and back an extended presence for U.S. troops in the country.

The advice comes as the White House hits the halfway point in its timeline to withdraw all U.S. troops and after Romney faced criticism for not mentioning the Afghan conflict in his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination.

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Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told The Hill on Wednesday the Romney camp needed to distance itself from the Obama administration's goal of pulling all American forces from Afghanistan by 2014.

They should, instead, pursue a war plan focused on "what we leave behind" in the country, not just ending the war as soon as possible, according to Graham.

"It's about getting it right," the South Carolina Republican said. Getting it right, he added, almost certainly means keeping U.S. forces in country past the administration's deadline.

"On the first day of a Romney administration," the presumed president-elect needed to call a meeting of the top U.S. commanders in Afghanistan and chart a different strategic course for the country, Graham said.

"And if [they] need to change the timetable in Afghanistan, that is what we will do," Graham said.

The Romney camp has been hammered in recent months by Democrats and by some within the GOP for not clearly defining the candidate's position on Afghanistan.

On the campaign trail, Romney has publicly agreed with the 2014 deadline, but chastised the administration for giving insurgents a date certain for a U.S. pullout.

Obama campaign officials claim the 2014 deadline represents the president's commitment to ending the Afghan war in the same way then-candidate Obama promised to end the Iraq war in 2008.

Friday's withdrawal of the remaining 32,000 "surge" troops sent to Afghanistan in 2009 is the latest sign the White House is delivering on that promise, according to administration officials.

"It is certainly in the interest of the United States that after a decade of war we continue with that transition in keeping with the President’s mission," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on Wednesday.

But the rise in insider attacks by Afghan troops against U.S. forces plus serious concerns on whether the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) can take over the country when the United States leaves in 2014 are indicative of the administration's failed war plan.

"So many of the problems we are now encountering in Afghanistan can be traced back to the administration’s repeated attempts to cut corners in this conflict," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Wednesday.

Over 51 coalition troops to date have died at the hands of Afghan soldiers or police via insider attacks. The majority of those casualties have been suffered by American personnel.

U.S. commanders have suspended all Afghan training missions and limited the number of joint Afghan and coalition force patrols as a result.

The attacks have driven a wedge between coalition commanders and their Afghan counterparts, while putting in doubt U.S. plans to shift control of all security operations to the ANSF after the American withdrawal.

Things have gotten so bad in the country, McCain suggested — for the first time —the Obama administration should consider an early withdrawal from Afghanistan as part of a wholesale change to the White House's current war strategy.

However the Arizona Republican and ardent defense hawk backtracked from that position on Thursday, saying while an early withdrawal should be an option on the table, going with that option would be the "worst possible course of action" for the United States in Afghanistan.

McCain's comments highlight the mixed opinions on Capitol Hill over how to end the war in Afghanistan. The main question on the minds of lawmakers is whether the White House should continue steadily cutting troop numbers, or freeze those troop levels until 2014.

With surge forces now gone, roughly 68,000 American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines remain in Afghanistan.

“The key issue is whether we continue to reduce troops after the surge forces are out,” said Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who advocates for continued reductions.

“What’s going to happen between 2012 and 2014: Are we going to go this way or this way,” he said in reference to the conflicting proposals. “That’s the big issue.”

Gen. John Allen, the commander in Afghanistan, will be evaluating the situation in Afghanistan and is expected to be giving a report to President Obama with his recommendations.