How Will Afghanistan Play in 2012?

With Republican candidates and voters both split on the war, troop-withdrawal politics are up in the air

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After President Obama delivered an Afghanistan speech aimed clearly at a domestic audience on Wednesday night, some of his harshest critics have accused him of tailoring his war strategy to further his own political fortunes. Regardless of how one took his address, Americans have soured on the war in Afghanistan: Polls show that most have opposed the war for at least a year, and there's a clear political imperative to wind down the U.S. mission there.

Domestic politics surrounding Afghanistan center on one election -- the 2012 presidential race -- but it's not yet entirely clear how Afghanistan will play out as Obama seeks another term in the White House. That's partly because we don't know which Republican Obama will face, and the Republican Party is currently divided on how to approach the war.

The GOP field is split almost evenly. Loosely speaking, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, businessman Herman Cain, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich all want to plod ahead and have criticized Obama as too willing to give up. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson have all criticized the war effort and want troops home soon.

Among those who've seemingly turned against the war, notably, is Mitt Romney, the perceived frontrunner in the GOP field who ran on a strong national-security platform in 2008 as he competed for votes with the likes of John McCain and Rudy Giuliani.

"We've learned that our troops shouldn't go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation. Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan's independence from the Taliban," Romney said during CNN's televised debate in New Hampshire June 13, prompting Sen. Lindsey Graham to respond on "Meet the Press" that "If you think the pathway to the GOP nomination in 2012 is to get to Barack Obama's left on Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq, you're going to meet a lot of headwinds."

GOP uncertainty over Afghanistna has been brewing since former Republican National Committee chairman Micheal Steele's horrendously inaccurate attempt to saddle Obama with the political burden of America's continued presence, when he claimed last summer at a fundraiser in Connecticut that the war (launched in 2001 by then-president George W. Bush) had been Obama's idea. As more attention has turned to Afghanistan withdrawal, Republicans are still figuring out how to confront the specific questions, logistical and ideological, associated with the war. Is it a vital U.S. national-security imperative to stay until we're certain Afghanistan's central government can function in every province? Is it a war for Afghan "independence"? Different Republicans are answering these questions in different ways.

Presented by

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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