Do the Republican presidential candidates care more about Iraq than Afghanistan?

President Obama just announced that US troops will completely withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011. Although this timetable was set by President Bush, Republican candidates of all sorts and stripes lambasted Obama for what they say is too hasty a withdrawal, and that Iraq might not be in a position to hold itself together, particularly given Iran’s presence next door.

But their attitudes toward Afghanistan — another Iran neighbor — are very different. Here’s a sampling of the Republican candidates’ comments about both countries.

Romney on Obama’s Iraq decision:

President Obama’s astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition in Iraq has unnecessarily put at risk the victories that were won through the blood and sacrifice of thousands of American men and women.

But on Afghanistan, he wants a faster withdrawal than the 2014 deadline set by Obama:

Again, I would listen to the generals, and if that continues to be the view of the – of the commanders in the field as they assess the capabilities of the Afghan military, then of course I would pursue that course. But…I hope we can perhaps move even faster than that [2014].

Here’s Rep. Michelle Bachmann on the Iraq withdrawal:

Today’s announcement that we will remove all of our forces from Iraq is a political decision and not a military one; it represents the complete failure of President Obama to secure an agreement with Iraq for our troops to remain there to preserve the peace….

Although she has moderated her position now, this is what she said to CNN in May:

I think we need to get out. I think Afghanistan is — on many, many levels, it doesn’t seem we’re gaining any ground. I want to reduce U.S. exposure in Afghanistan. So, let’s get them out as quickly as we can.

Here’s Rick Perry on Iraq:

President Obama is putting political expediency ahead of sound military and security judgment by announcing an end to troop level negotiations and a withdrawal from Iraq by year’s end.

Here’s a Perry advisor, who was “clarifying” his earlier comments about a speedy withdrawal from Afghanistan:

He would lean toward wanting to bring our troops home, but he understands that we have vital strategic interests in Afghanistan and that a precipitous withdrawal is not what he’s recommending.

[snip]

But Gov. Perry is not confident in the Obama policy, which seems to be driven largely by politics, and he’s not confident in the 100,000 troops number. He’d like to know if it’s possible at 40,000.

While Jon Huntsman attacked Obama over Iraq, he wants a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan. “Only Afghanistan can save Afghanistan,” he said in a major foreign policy speech of his campaign earlier this month.

Holding these views puts these candidates somewhat out of synch with the American public, the veterans, the facts and the Republican establishment. Consider this:

Iraq has been far deadlier and more expensive than Afghanistan. Roughly around 4,500 US troops have died in the 8-year Iraq war, while about 1,700 have lost their lives in the 12-year Afghan war. Iraq has cost more than $700 billion (by some accounts, it’s more than $3 trillion), while Afghanistan has cost about $443 billion.

Veterans’ attitudes are also a little more positive toward Afghanistan than Iraq. A recent Pew survey showed that while only one-thirds of veterans thought both wars had been worth fighting, 50% say so about Afghanistan, while only 44% say so about Iraq.

The American people as a whole also have a less negative opinion of Afghanistan compared to Iraq. In a January poll by CNN, 66% opposed the war in Iraq, while 58% said so about Afghanistan; favorability was 33% and 40% respectively.

And consider these two giants in the Republican establishment who, contrary to the candidates, are treating both wars similarly:

Senate Armed Service Committee member Sen. Lindsay Graham criticized Obama over Iraq and wants “a couple of air bases” in Afghanistan “in perpetuity.” Likewise, Sen. John McCain scolded Obama for setting an Afghan withdrawal date and criticized him for bringing all the troops home from Iraq.

So, why do the candidates have two opinions for the two wars? And why, ceteris paribus, are they out of synch with the public, the veterans, the facts and the Republican establishment? A conspiracy-theoretic — and, I concede, lazy — answer would be “the oil.” But a more plausible answer is simply that the candidates want to take every opportunity to criticize Obama in order to draw a sharp contrast between themselves and the incumbent president. It helps them to be not-Obama, just as it had helped Obama being not-Bush.

Another reason could be that Obama failed to strike an agreement with Iraq for permanent US presence, while there is still hope for such a deal for Afghanistan.

Are there other reasons that I am not missing?

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