Republicans Stay to Obama’s Right on Afghanistan

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Allauddin Khan / AP

Afghan villagers listen to a speech by an Afghan official, unseen, during a prayer ceremony for civilians killed two days before allegedly by a U.S. soldier in Panjwai, Kandahar province south of Kabul, Afghanistan, March 13, 2012.

The massacre of sixteen Afghan civilians near Kandahar has thrust Afghanistan back into the political debate. (Yes, there is a real war going on, and it’s not the one for bound delegates in Tampa.) For a moment early this week it looked like we might be near a tipping point, at which Republicans could lunge to Obama’s left on the war. Newt Gingrich proclaimed Afghanistan “not doable,” while Rick Santorum said we should either double down with more resources or “probably get out sooner” than planned. Mitt Romney, true to form, played it more cagily, cautioning against a rush to change policy based on a single demented act. But even Romney said that “we should on a regular basis reassess what’s happening in Afghanistan,” which was not exactly a cry for death or glory.

Yes, the latest ABC News-Washington Post poll shows that Republicans are evenly divided about whether the Afghanistan war is worth fighting, the first time that poll has failed to find majority support for the war among GOPers. But it’s not clear we’re about to see the party’s leaders start calling for a rapid exit from the Hindu Kush. For starters, Josh Rogin details the efforts of Republican hawks on the Hill, like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, to beat back talk of an accelerated withdrawal.

Nor do either of the two presidential candidates who still matter, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, seem to be shifting significantly. Last night Santorum told Fox’s Greta van Susteren that Obama’s plan is “doomed to failure,” but that he would follow a “completely different strategy in Afghanistan and would be successful in executing that plan.” He also bashed Obama for setting withdrawal timelines that could encourage the Taliban and makes our allies “hedge their bets.” Likewise, in CBS interview yesterday, Romney called Obama’s timelines a mistake.

Opposing timelines runs against public opinion on the war. But it also puts Republicans in their preferred role of alignment with the Pentagon brass, which has a symbolic political power of its own. That’s probably why Romney likes to cite Petraeus’s public difference of opinion with Obama over drawing down the 2009 surge forces.

But this could be a dangerous game for Republicans. In 2008, John McCain constantly cited the military men–including Petraeus himself–who cautioned against setting a deadline for our exit from Iraq, and argued that Obama’s withdrawal plan was reckless and dangerous. Obama seemed to get the best of that argument. When it comes to Afghanistan, he must be hoping that history will repeat itself.

Read more about Obama’s timeline for withdrawal in the new issue of TIME, now available online to subscribers and hitting newsstands Friday.