Why Don't More Republican Presidential Candidates Want to Leave Afghanistan?

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Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, who is widely expected to run for president, has finally made some news that doesn't involve embarrassing e-mails or embarrassing racial gaffes. Speaking to reporters in Iowa last night, he said the United States should find savings in the Pentagon budget and consider drawing down in Afghanistan:

"I think we need to look at that," he said when asked if the U.S. should scale back its presence.

But he said his reasoning isn't financial.

"What is our mission?" Barbour said. "How many Al Qaeda are in Afghanistan. ... Is that a 100,000-man Army mission?"

"I don't think our mission should be to think we're going to make Afghanistan an Ireland or an Italy" or a Western-style democracy, he said.

As Politico's Ben Smith observes, Barbour is "the first among the leading Republican candidates to suggest that the United States reduce its presence in Afghanistan and its spending on defense." Of course, if Ron Paul runs, he would easily outdo Barbour on this front. But for now, Barbour is the only one, and Time's Joe Klein uses the opportunity to tout him as "probably the smartest political strategist in the field."

Whether or not that's true, you really don't need to be a genius to know that Americans across the political spectrum are tiring of the war in Afghanistan. You just need the ability to read. According to a January Gallup poll, 72 percent of independents and 61 percent of Republicans want to "speed up withdrawal from Afghanistan." And the sentiment is even stronger among tea partiers. According to a poll commissioned by the Afghan Study Group — in the words of founder Steve Clemons, "a bipartisan group of leading academics, business executives, former government officials, policy practitioners and journalists" — 64 percent of self-identified tea partiers want to reduce troop levels in Afghanistan or leave the country entirely. Considering the poll numbers, more surprising than Barbour taking a dovish position on Afghanistan is that the rest of his fellow candidates-to-be haven't already done the same.

Barbour breaks with rivals on Afghanistan, defense spending [Ben Smith/Politico]
Haley Barbour Steps Out [Swampland/Time]