Will Republicans Side With Haley Barbour on Afghanistan?

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Haley Barbour has broken with most of his likely Republican rivals in the still-evolving presidential primary field, calling for the U.S. to shrink its involvement in Afghanistan.

"I think we need to look at that," the Mississippi governor told reporters in Iowa when asked if the U.S. should reduce the number of troops there, Politico's Kasie Hunt reported. "What is our mission? ... Is that a 100,000-man Army mission?"

Will Republican primary voters buy what Barbour is selling?

Barbour isn't the only probable GOP presidential candidate who holds this view. Other candidates will road-test such Afghan criticism in Iowa and New Hampshire -- they just happen to be the libertarians in the field. Ron Paul has called for an end to the war, as has former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson. Both are taking steps toward running in 2012.

The Republican Party is developing an increasingly complex relationship with the war. Since President Bush first sent troops to Afghanistan in 2001, most Republican elected officials have staunchly supported American military involvement there, with most criticism of the intervention coming from the left and with many Democrats saying they felt the Afghan conflict was being neglected in favor of the war in Iraq. But what began as an immensely popular intervention after 9/11 has slowly lost public support.

In July, the Republican National Committee's then-chairman, Michael Steele, tried to put the political baggage of Afghanistan on President Obama. Very inaccurately, Steele told a small group of GOP donors in Connecticut that the war had been Obama's idea -- and that it had been a bad idea, at that.

Steele's mind-boggling error of fact spoke to a political imperative to criticize the Afghanistan effort: He framed his historical revision as a talking point for GOP candidates battered by assertions that Afghanistan was George W. Bush's war. The party, it seemed, officially wanted to disassociate itself from U.S. involvement there.

Despite polls that show views souring across the board (64 percent told ABC the war isn't worth fighting, according to polling released Wednesday) -- as well as most Americans discouraged about how Afghanistan is going -- Republicans are not so far aligned with Barbour's take.

Republicans support the war in Afghanistan, in general: 52 percent of Republicans supported it, while 38 percent didn't, according to the latest national CBS News poll on Afghanistan, conducted Feb. 11-14.

Here's how GOP views on Afghanistan have evolved since the fall of 2009, when CBS asked, with the same wording, whether the U.S. is "doing the right thing" by fighting there:
Republicans Afghanistan polling with Q1.jpgRepublicans don't share Barbour's view right now, but they're certainly trending his way. When the presidential primaries begin 11 months from now, Barbour could find more Republicans agreeing with him.

Republicans are more optimistic about the war than Democrats are. In the February CBS poll, 43 percent of Republicans said the war is going either somewhat or very well, while 51 percent said it's going badly. Fifty-nine percent of Democrats, meanwhile, said the war is going badly. Nor have they appreciated the steps Obama has taken to begin unwinding America's presence: Last July, 66 percent said Obama should not set a timetable for withdrawal.

But perhaps the issue should be framed differently.

Few see Afghanistan as a prime voting issue, and the economy is dominating political discussion right now. Afghanistan could become a bigger issue in 2012, as the U.S. will be well into Obama's conditions-based withdrawal plan, set to begin in July. How Obama has handled Afghanistan will serve as a major point of reflection on his presidency. As we approach that major political event, views appear to be somewhat fluid.

So, would GOP primary voters rather hear that we should stick with the war effort, or would they rather hear that something is going badly on Obama's watch?

Next year, Barbour and a few other candidates will find out.

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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