WASHINGTON -- With the death of Osama bin Laden dominating the news cycle and captivating the public this week, the five Republican presidential hopefuls who showed in South Carolina Thursday for the Fox News debate were asked to explain their position on the war in Afghanistan.
Fox News host Brett Baier brought up the issue in one of the first questions of the night, asking former senator Rick Santorum about his claim that President Obama has made America less safe.
"When it comes to going after terrorists, for example, drone attacks in Pakistan have more than tripled under President Obama. He just sent 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan last year, and he just authorized, as we talked about, this mission to kill bin Laden. How much more aggressive could he be?" asked Baier.
Santorum replied that when Obama has done well on foreign policy, it's been because he has continued President George W. Bush's policies, such as "keeping Gitmo open" and "trying to win in Afghanistan." In recent days, many Republicans have rushed to embrace the former president, a man barely mentioned during the last election cycle.
Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), however, received the first applause of the night when he forcefully called for withdrawal:
[Bin Laden] wasn't caught in Afghanistan. Nation-building in Afghanistan and telling those people how to live and getting involved in running their country hardly had anything to do with finding the information where he was being held in a country that we give billions of dollars of foreign aid to, at the same time we are bombing that country.
So it's the policy that is at fault. Not having the troops in Afghanistan wouldn't have hurt. We went to Afghanistan to get him, and he hasn't been there. Now that he's killed, boy, it is a wonderful time for this country now to reassess it, get the troops out of Afghanistan and end that war that hasn't helped us and hasn't helped anybody in the Middle East.
Businessman Herman Cain's answer on Afghanistan was less clear. He said he doesn't have a plan, because it's not clear what the mission is, what the U.S. interest there is or what the "road map to victory" is. At the same time, Cain did not outline his own vision, simply saying he would "revisit the issue."
Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson has been an advocate for withdrawal from Afghanistan, and he repeated his position during the debate.
"Are you worried about providing a specific end date and that possibly would enable the Taliban to move in the day after the U.S. troops left?" asked Baier.
"First of all, I'm not in favor of a timetable. I'm in belief that timetable should be tomorrow. I realize that tomorrow may involve several months," said Johnson.
He added that unlike the Iraq war, he originally supported the invasion of Afghanistan.
"We were attacked. We attacked back," said Johnson. "That's what our military is for, and after six months, I think we pretty effectively had taken care of al Qaeda. But that was 10 years ago. We are building roads, schools, bridges and highways in Iraq and Afghanistan and borrowing 43 cents out of every dollar do that. In my opinion, this is crazy."
While foreign policy barely popped up during the 2010 elections, and pundits widely predict the struggling economy will once again dominate in 2012, bin Laden's death has put Afghanistan on the front burner and forced candidates explain their stance on the decades-long war.
While many have called to reassess the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan in light of bin Laden's shooting deep within Pakistan, the White House said on Thursday that it will not be changing its policy on the war.