Candidates Find Some Accord on Afghanistan

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.

"We must strengthen local tribes in the border areas who are willing to fight the foreign terrorists there -- the strategy used successfully in Anbar and elsewhere in Iraq," he said, speaking at a town hall meeting in Albuquerque. "We must convince Pakistanis that this is their war as much as it is ours. And we must empower the new civilian government of Pakistan to defeat radicalism with greater support for development, health and education."

Significant differences exist between the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the current ratio of troops to the population is vastly smaller. Afghanistan is a far more impoverished country with an opium-dominated economy, high illiteracy, extremely rugged terrain and a long, porous border with major insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan. Such factors make it more difficult to protect the population against insurgent influence, develop effective Afghan forces and spread the government's authority.

McCain also pressed his attack on Obama's foreign policy experience and judgment yesterday, mocking him for laying out plans ahead of an upcoming fact-finding trip to Europe, the Middle East and Afghanistan.

"I note that he is speaking today about his plans for Iraq and Afghanistan before he has even left, before he has talked to General Petraeus, before he has seen the progress in Iraq and before he has set foot in Afghanistan for the first time," McCain said, adding that "fact-finding missions usually work best the other way around: First you assess the facts on the ground, then you present a new strategy."

Still, Obama aides said they believe the foreign policy debate has moved to Obama's turf. Anthony Lake, a White House national security adviser under President Bill Clinton, noted that in denouncing in 2002 the upcoming invasion of Iraq, Obama said that war would take the nation's attention away from the terrorists who plotted the Sept. 11 attacks. A year ago, in a speech on terrorism, Obama called for shifting at least two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan.

"John McCain discovered Afghanistan seemingly for the first time today," said Susan Rice, a senior Obama foreign policy adviser.

The candidates now have a similar vision for both conflicts -- drawing down troop levels in Iraq and building up strength in Afghanistan by 12,000 to 15,000 troops. But Obama sees that shift as the first step in a larger goal of withdrawing most combat forces from Iraq in 16 months. McCain said the shift of military personnel would be a sign of success in Iraq.

"Thanks to the success of the surge, these forces are becoming available, and our commanders in Afghanistan must get them," McCain said.

McCain softened that line as the day went on. Aboard his campaign bus, McCain suggested that some of those additional troops might have to come from NATO allies, and his aides said the U.S. troops could come from brigades that had either left Iraq or would do so by early next year.

On July 2, Mullen, the Joint Chiefs chairman, said he would like three additional combat brigades in Afghanistan, suggesting that those forces could be available in early 2009 if conditions in Iraq continue to improve. But a spate of suicide bombings in Iraq yesterday pointed up how fragile that idea may be.

McCain "needs to explain how he's going to stay at high levels in Iraq, surge in Afghanistan, and as he said last week bring down the deficit with savings from troop withdrawals," said Rice, the Obama aide. "His position is entirely riddled with internal contradictions that are embarrassing."

Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.

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