WASHINGTON -- Republican presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman want a faster withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and a growing number of GOP members of Congress have also concluded it's time to end the fight.
But two former U.S. officials who helped lead President George W. Bush's war on terrorism say the killing of Osama bin Laden and the mounting cost of the Afghan campaign are no reason to leave just yet.
"We will be in a stronger political position for a political outcome for this if we sustain relatively constant force levels through this fighting season and for at least the 2012 fighting season," said Michael Hayden, the former director of both the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, at a policy briefing Thursday. "Give war a chance."
Former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said that despite rising anger among lawmakers over Pakistan's duplicity -- the latest outrage, its reported arrest of informants who helped make the successful raid on bin Laden's complex possible -- President Barack Obama should not high-tail it out of the region.
"To precipitously pull out of Afghanistan is not only to invite al Qaeda to go back in … but is to create a further worsening of the dynamic with Pakistan, which creates more instability," Chertoff said. "A premature withdrawal from Pakistan is fundamentally problematic for American national interests."
The men -- who are business partners in the Chertoff Group, the former secretary's private security consulting firm -- spoke at an Institute for Education roundtable hosted by the Norwegian Embassy. Fox News' Pentagon correspondent Jennifer Griffin, who once lived in Pakistan, also took part in the session. The timing of this "World After Bin Laden" event conveniently coincided with an announcement by al Qaeda that it had anointed bin Laden's long-time no. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as his successor.
"It would be easy to view the death of bin Laden as an emotional and strategic punctuation" in the battle against al Qaeda, Chertoff said, warning of the "danger of this becoming an excuse for complacency."
While he understands the "frustration" over the situation in Afghanistan and the instinct to turn away from unreliable partners like Pakistan, the threat of terrorism from the region "is a persistent problem." It is, Chertoff said, "in many ways like a cancer: You may be in remission, you may battle it back -- but it's not going away."
Hayden also urged staying the course, agreeing with Defense Secretary Robert Gates who said this week that Pakistan is hardly the only government that lies, and that lawmakers must face reality.
"Pakistan is motivated to act in a way contrary to how we would like it to act in regard to the Haqqani network and the Taliban, to the degree they think our staying power is wobbly," Hayden said. The more "uncommitted" the United States looks, the more Pakistan will behave in ways the U.S. doesn't like, he added.
Chertoff said that includes the current fervor to cut off aid to the regime in Islamabad.
"Congress is likely to want a very blunt instrument, and what would not be a helpful thing would be putting their backs to the wall by cutting things off and reverting back to the worst period of time," he said. "This is a classic example of why you want to locate the national security relationship in the executive branch. You have to be very nimble about deciding how exactly you respond both privately and publicly. Pounding the drum on Capitol Hill kind of locks you in."
And speaking of Obama, Chertoff and Hayden had nothing but praise for how he has conducted the war on terror.
The president "deserves a lot of credit for a courageous and tough decision" in ordering the raid on bin Laden, Chertoff said.
Hayden agreed, adding there have been "amazing consistencies" between the Bush and Obama administrations' handling of the war on terror.