How Will Afghanistan Play in 2012?

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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.

Nor is it clear what Republican primary voters will think about the war when states begin choosing a candidate in early 2012.

While the rest of the country opposes the war, Republicans favor it. According to a June 3 - 7 CBS poll, 53 percent of Republicans said America is "doing the right thing" by fighting there, while 41 percent said the opposite. (In the same poll, 43 percent of all respondents said the U.S. is doing the "right thing," while 51 percent sided against the war.) Republicans could, however, be turning against the war: In its June 15-19 survey, Pew found a nine-percentage-point swing in favor of immediate withdrawal among Republicans since May. In a May 5-8 poll, 34 percent of Republicans favored removing U.S. troops as soon as possible; a month later, that figure had climbed to 43 percent, closer to the 40 percent Pew found in April.

If Republicans nominate a pro-war candidate, voters who favor withdrawal will have no choice other than Obama on this issue. For the president, Afghanistan politics could come down to convincing his anti-war supporters he's on their side, and fighting against deflation and fatigue on this issue among Democrats and independents who backed him in 2008.

But it's quite possible Republicans will select an anti-war presidential candidate in 2012, even one who makes a point to criticize Obama for not bringing troops home faster. In that case, Obama could feel even more political pressure to withdraw faster, and Afghanistan politics could center not only on Obama-voter fatigue on the war issue, but on honing messages to attract independents, who oppose the war 53 percent to 39 percent according to CBS and want to bring troops home as soon as possible by a 57-percent majority according to Pew. Or, if the candidates sound similar enough, Afghanistan withdrawal could be moot as a 2012 campaign issue.

This much is certain: There will be many wrinkles in Afghanistan politics before the 2012 election, as both Obama and Republicans hone their messages, and as the GOP tries to rally behind a single candidate after a primary process that could see the party split on the war.

Add to all that a simple truth: A changing situation in Afghanistan could mean changing opinions in America. If Obama's withdrawal leads to calamitous results, some will blame his withdrawal plan, and some will sour on the war even further. If conditions don't allow him to bring home as many troops as promised, war opponents could be upset. If everything works swimmingly, a GOP candidate could find him- or herself defending a position that no longer holds.

The war has become unpopular in general, but Afghanistan politics will be more complicated than that before the 2012 election -- and before the U.S. manages to extricate itself from the war.

Image credit: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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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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