Focus Is on Afghanistan As Bush Lays Out Plans

Speaking at the National Defense University on Tuesday, President Bush outlines a troop reduction plan at the recommendation of Gen. Petraeus and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Video by AP
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The political battles over U.S. war policy shifted toward Afghanistan yesterday, as President Bush announced a fresh influx of troops there while presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama attacked each other's commitment to defeat terrorists.

In announcing perhaps his last major military deployments as commander in chief, Bush announced that he would accept Pentagon recommendations to remove about 8,000 U.S. troops from Iraq by early next year. But the president also said he would send nearly 5,000 troops to Afghanistan, which he characterized as an increasingly important front in the battle against al-Qaeda.

"Al-Qaeda's leaders have repeatedly declared that Iraq is the central front of their war with America, but it is not the only front," Bush said in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington. "As al-Qaeda faces increased pressure in Iraq, the terrorists are stepping up their efforts on the front where this struggle first began -- the nation of Afghanistan."

The announcement underscored the reemergence of Afghanistan in the debates over U.S. national security and illustrated how, nearly seven years after the Sept. 11 attacks, Democrats and Republicans remain fundamentally at odds over the best strategy for fighting al-Qaeda and other Islamist extremists.

Democrat Obama, a senator from Illinois who has long called for more U.S. troops in Afghanistan, said at a news conference in Ohio yesterday that Bush "is moving in the direction of the policy that I have advocated for years." But he said the plan also "comes up short" because "it is not enough troops and not enough resources, with not enough urgency."

"What President Bush and Senator McCain don't understand is that the central front in the war on terror is not in Iraq, and it never was," Obama said. "The central front is in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the terrorists who hit us on 9/11 are still plotting attacks seven years later."

McCain (R-Ariz.), by contrast, praised Bush's announcement of Iraq withdrawals as a demonstration of "what success in our efforts there can look like" and alleged that Obama "believes we must lose in Iraq to win in Afghanistan." He criticized Obama for opposing an increase in troops in Iraq last year that the administration credits for reducing violence.

"Senator Obama's comments today demonstrate again his commitment to retreating from Iraq no matter what the cost," McCain said in a statement. "His focus is on withdrawal -- not on victory."

Bush spent nearly half of his speech focusing on the worsening conflict in Afghanistan, where the increasing death toll among foreign troops has surpassed those in Iraq in recent months. The new deployments represent a 15 percent increase in U.S. military personnel for Afghanistan, and administration officials say the groundwork is being laid for more troops in the future.

One senior official told reporters during a background briefing yesterday that the latest influx of troops is "a down payment on what will eventually be an even larger U.S. commitment to Afghanistan." The United States is also launching an initiative to double the size of the Afghan army over the next five years.

Senior leaders at the Pentagon have said for months that they need additional U.S. troops to combat growing violence in Afghanistan, but ongoing military commitments in Iraq made such a move impossible until now.

"Changed circumstances means changed resources, changed commitments," the administration official said.

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