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Ryan’s shifting views on America’s “forgotten war”

Ryan’s shifting views on America’s “forgotten war”

Paul Ryan’s views are evolving with his time on the Republican ticket. And while most attention has gone to his opinions and policy prescriptions on domestic issues, most notably Medicare and the federal budget, he also has moved closer to his presidential candidate’s position on the war that won’t be named: Afghanistan.

No candidate – neither President Barack Obama, nor Mitt Romney, has wanted to devote significant policy airtime to the unpopular war in Afghanistan, which polls show 60 percent of Americans see as "not worth its costs."   The president, when he mentions Afghanistan, focuses on his role in "winding down the war in Afghanistan," a conflict the AP recently called America’s  "forgotten war" and which has now claimed 2,000 American lives.

Romney has struggled on the campaign trail to differentiate his position on Afghanistan from the president’s, but in a recent interview with TIME he said that while he agreed with the decision to send a "surge" of troops to Afghanistan and to bring all troops home by 2014, he "would not have announced publicly the withdrawal date of the end of 2014." In other words, he agreed with the date, but would not have shared it.  Romney also said he would have started the drawdown of surge forces this December, rather than September, to give the military another fighting season with more forces at the ready.  And Romney asserted he would have given US military leaders the additional 40,000 troops they requested in 2009, rather than sending 30,000, as the president decided.

Ryan, in among his first foreign policy comments with his presidential candidate, channeled Romney in New Hampshire this week.

"The president, in my opinion, has made decisions that are more political in nature than military in nature," Ryan said, in comments noted by ABC News’ Emily Friedman.  "A drawdown occurring in the middle of a fighting season when we are still giving our military the same mission, we don’t want to do something that would put them in jeopardy. We want them to fulfill the mission in the safest way possible and that, to me, means you make decisions based on what is right for the country, for our national security and let our men and women serving in our armed forces do their job in the safest possible way. Period. End of story. Elections notwithstanding."

And in 2009, Ryan wrote that the "President deserves credit for adopting an urgently needed counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan," but "I am deeply troubled by the President’s decision to publically announce a time limit dictating troop withdrawal."

In the recent past, however, Ryan’s views on the war have not strayed far from Obama’s policy. In fact, they have sounded much closer to Vice President Joe Biden’s push for "counter-terrorism plus," a strategy that calls for fewer U.S. boots on the ground in Afghanistan, in combination with a focus on drone strikes against al-Qaeda targets and training the Afghan security forces. Though Ryan has supported the president’s decisions on Afghanistan, he also has echoed the widespread voter skepticism about the war’s ultimate objectives.

"What matters to us is our national security and that is, are we going to make sure that this place doesn’t become another hotbed for terrorism?" Ryan said to a local Wisconsin radio station in a March interview.   "We can do that with a very limited footprint, special forces working with tribes who hate the Taliban as well.  We can deny safe haven for Al Qaeda terrorist in Afghanistan without the kind of enormous sacrifice in troop numbers and money that we are dedicating now." 

Continued Ryan, "I think that there is a great consensus in Congress, Republicans and Democrats, that the President is on the right timetable, that he has given the right timeline to have what we would define as an ultimate victory."

As the campaign winds on, look for the ‘forgotten war’ to remain so. But when it does surface, it’s unlikely Ryan will praise Obama for coming up with the "right timeline" again.  Now that Romney has found the ground upon which he will stake his differences with the president on the war in Afghanistan, he will certainly make room for Ryan to join him.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.