(WASHINGTON) — Mitt Romney’s pointed criticism of President Obama’s planned 2014 “transition” of troops out of Afghanistan has been dulled over the past week, marking a rhetorically subtle but politically significant shift in the Republican nominee’s plan to end the decade-long war.
The Romney campaign denies any suggestion its policy has changed, but recent comments have opened the door for President Obama to question the challenger — and deflect from broader foreign policy concerns — during their debate Tuesday night in New York.
For months on the stump, Romney has warned that setting a hard-and-fast timeline for leaving the Afghanistan would provide the Taliban and other insurgent forces with the upper hand in the fight to build and preserve the country’s already tenuous democratic institutions.
But over the past five days, both Romney’s top foreign policy adviser and his running mate have used softer language, suggesting that a new administration would take almost precisely the same course.
During his foreign policy address on Oct. 8, Romney dismissed Obama’s exit strategy as a “politically timed retreat that abandons the Afghan people to the same extremists who ravaged their country and used it to launch the attacks of 9/11.”
“I’ll evaluate conditions on the ground and weigh the best advice of our military commanders,” Romney said, before making a final decision about when and at what rate U.S. troops would come home.
His campaign has also pointed to statements made by then-Gen. David Petraeus and Admiral Mike Mullen to the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2011 suggesting Obama had removed surge troops from Afghanistan at a faster clip than suggested by military leaders.
But in an interview with Fox News on Thursday, before the vice presidential debate, top aide Dan Senor told Bret Baier Romney has “always been” on the same page with Obama and that he “supports the president’s position.”
“But aren’t you saying that that’s exactly the same?” Baier asked. “It’s a calendar date on the page that gives the Taliban a date that they are going to step in –“
“Okay, so this is important,” Senor interjected. “Governor Romney has always said it is a mistake to broadcast timelines, if you’re the commander-in-chief, to broadcast timelines so our enemies are in the know about our next move.”
The Obama campaign chimed in minutes later, accusing Romney in an email of playing “hide and go seek with their positions on issues of war and peace.”
That night, during his debate with Vice President Biden, Rep. Paul Ryan made an argument similar to Senor’s, implying that the Romney’s complaint was less with the details of the current policy than the fact that it was made public.
“We don’t want to broadcast to our enemies ‘put a date on your calendar, wait us out, and then come back,'” the vice presidential nominee told debate moderator and ABC News senior foreign affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz.
Raddatz followed up, asking Ryan if he otherwise agreed with the president’s plan.
“We do agree, we do agree with the timeline and the transition,” he responded, “but what we, what any administration will do in 2013 is assess the situation to see how best to complete this timeline.”
Daniel Serwer, a senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University, told ABC News after Romney’s Monday speech that the candidate presented “a distinction without a difference” on the Afghan question.
“He might push it back a couple of months,” Serwer said in an email, “but he has never suggested anything more dramatic than that.”
The NATO-backed plan to end combat operations and conduct a staggered withdrawal of troops would see internal security responsibility handed over to Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government in 2013. The military force would begin marching home over the next year.
The U.S. will, however, maintain a “residual force” of unknown quantity for an unknown period of time after the current agreement expires. Financial support will also continue, at a shared estimated cost of $4 billion per year.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio