By Deborah Charles
MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina (Reuters) - Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney said on Monday the United States should not negotiate with the Taliban and he criticized the Obama administration for efforts to broker secret talks with the Afghan insurgents.
Romney, who has won the first two Republican contests in the race to pick a nominee to face Democratic President Barack Obama in November, strongly rejected any sort of talks with the Taliban.
"The right course for America is not to negotiate with the Taliban while the Taliban are killing our soldiers," Romney said during a debate of the five Republican presidential hopefuls ahead of Saturday's South Carolina primary. "The right course is to recognize that they are the enemy of the United States."
Romney said Obama had put the United States in a position of "extraordinary weakness" because he had made a decision based on a political calendar on when to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and because he has even publicly announced the date when the United States would completely withdraw from the country.
"We don't negotiate from a position of weakness as we are pulling our troops out," Romney said. "We should not negotiate with the Taliban. We should defeat the Taliban."
Senior U.S. officials told Reuters last month that the United States had been involved in 10 months of secret dialogue with the Taliban. Officials had said the talks had reached a critical juncture and a Taliban prisoner transfer was possible from the Guantanamo Bay military prison into Afghan government custody.
U.S. officials had said a transfer of prisoners could be one confidence-building measure critical to making progress on a peace deal between the Taliban and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
But Romney said those negotiations sent the wrong message to the people of Afghanistan.
"Think what it says to the people of Afghanistan ... if they see us, their ally, turning and negotiating with the very people they are going to have to protect their nation from."
If Romney wins the Republican nomination, he will face Obama on Election Day November 6. Obama's record on foreign policy and national security is likely to be one of his strengths, however, because he can point to the killing last year of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as one of his victories.