Candidates Find Some Accord on Afghanistan

Democrat Barack Obama says the Iraq war has unwisely diverted resources from Afghanistan.
Democrat Barack Obama says the Iraq war has unwisely diverted resources from Afghanistan. (By Chris Kleponis -- Bloomberg News)
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By Jonathan Weisman and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain shifted their foreign policy focus yesterday from the future of U.S. military involvement in Iraq to the deteriorating war in Afghanistan, with both White House hopefuls pledging thousands of additional troops and a large-scale infusion of aid for the Afghan conflict.

In doing so, the two men offered sharply different assessments of the Iraq war and its impact on Afghanistan, with Obama saying Iraq is a distraction from the fight against terrorism and McCain calling it a proving ground for tactics needed to beat back a resurgent Taliban.

After weeks of verbal combat over Iraq, the candidates offered prescriptions for Afghanistan with striking similarities -- though the sniping went on unabated. Both men spoke passionately, not only about military assistance to Afghanistan and Pakistan but also of nonmilitary aid to foster democracy and goodwill in the region. Both spoke broadly of building alliances to combat terrorism, transforming South Asia "from a theater for regional rivalries into a commons for regional cooperation," as McCain put it.

That dovetailed with legislation introduced yesterday by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), an Obama supporter, and Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), who backs McCain, to triple humanitarian spending in Pakistan, contingent on a stronger effort to fight terrorism.

Yesterday was the first time McCain suggested moving troops from Iraq to what has been called the forgotten war, and his shift brought him in line with the direction long advocated by Obama, who has called for paying more military and diplomatic attention to Afghanistan for years.

For both men, the new focus is likely to resonate with voters. A narrow majority of Americans say that the war in Afghanistan has been worth the costs and that the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the region must be won to triumph in the broader battle against terrorism, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week. Most Americans do not say the same about Iraq.

And the forgotten war is not quite so forgotten anymore. Last month, more U.S. service members died in Afghanistan than in Iraq. On Sunday, nine soldiers were killed and more than a dozen were wounded when hundreds of Taliban fighters stormed the perimeter of a U.S. forward operating base. Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly called for more U.S. troops in Afghanistan this month, even as he conceded that they are not available because they are committed to Iraq.

Although both presidential candidates acknowledged those dire circumstances, they used the war in Iraq as a very different springboard for their policy recommendations.

"It is unacceptable that almost seven years after nearly 3,000 Americans were killed on our soil, the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 are still at large," Obama said during a sober 30-minute speech at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington. "Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahari are recording messages to their followers and plotting more terror. The Taliban controls parts of Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda has an expanding base in Pakistan that is probably no farther from their old Afghan sanctuary than a train ride from Washington to Philadelphia."

Obama also said that the Iraq war has made America no safer and that "the central front in the war on terror is not Iraq and it never was," drawing a response from President Bush.

At a White House news conference, Bush said the United States is waging a "two-front war" in Iraq and Afghanistan and is busy on other fronts less visible to Americans. He acknowledged worsening security conditions in Afghanistan and said he is analyzing whether more troops need to be sent there. "One front right now is going better than the other, and that's Iraq, where we're succeeding, and our troops are coming home based upon success," Bush said. "Afghanistan is a tough fight. . . . And it's really important we succeed there as well as in Iraq."

McCain said U.S. forces must apply the lessons they learned in their fight against insurgents in Iraq to the fighting in Afghanistan.

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