Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry kicked up a firestorm inside the GOP when he seemed to endorse Jon Huntsman's call for a speedy withdrawal from Afghanistan during this week's debate, but his real views on Afghanistan don't match those of Huntsman, the GOP hawks, or President Barack Obama, a senior Perry foreign policy advisor told The Cable.
"In the dynamic of a debate when you follow someone, you kind of play off of them, and what Gov. Perry wanted to do was to express a similar sentiment to Gov. Huntsman that he very much wants to bring the troops home, we all do, but he wasn't saying ‘I want to bring the troops home now,'" the advisor said.
Perry's stance on Afghanistan seems to be searching for a middle ground. Like the Obama administration, he wants to shift emphasis to handing over responsibility to the Afghan security forces as a means of bringing U.S. troops home. But also thinks Obama's announcement of a timetable for withdrawal was unwise -- and he's unsure whether the United States really needs 100,000 troops fighting there still.
"If increasingly the Afghans can do this kind of work, then of course we want to bring our people home. It's good for us, it's good for them. 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," the advisor said, explaining that the rationale for the specific number of U.S. troops on the ground has never been clearly explained by the administration.
"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."
Perry's stance on Afghanistan isn't likely to fully satisfy those calling for a more rapid withdrawal, or those calling for the 30,000 U.S. "surge" troops to remain in the country past summer 2012, when Obama has said he plans to remove them.
"What [Perry] doesn't have is confidence that [the Afghan campaign] is being done in a way that's focused on achieving the mission, which would be keeping Afghanistan free of terrorists and not destabilizing the region," the advisor said.
So how many troops does Perry believe should be withdrawn and at what pace?
"We're not in a position to answer that question, we're not in those briefings," the senior advisor said.
Perry also believes the United States should focus greater attention on how it uses foreign aid. He wants to "shine a really bright light on that whole culture of foreign aid and revisit how it is deployed as part of our larger foreign policy," the advisor said.
The advisor touted the fact that Perry is a former member of the military, and signaled that the presidential candidate is prepared to stick to his middle-of-the-road stance in Afghanistan.
"He has a clear sense of the mission and wanting to win it, but not just by throwing the kitchen sink at it," the advisor said.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.