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.
Also yesterday, U.S. Central Command announced that Brig. Gen. Michael W. Callan, former commander of the Air Force Special Operations Forces, will head a new military investigation of a U.S. airstrike last month in Afghanistan that United Nations and Afghan officials say killed 90 civilians.
Callan and a small team, including a military legal official and officers with experience in Afghanistan, will "consider new information that has become available since the completion of the initial investigation," a Centcom statement said. The initial military review of the Aug. 22 incident in the town of Azizabad, near the western city of Herat, found that five to seven civilians had been killed, along with more than 30 insurgents.
In his remarks, Bush argued that U.S. successes against al-Qaeda and other extremists in Iraq have played a role in the growing violence in Afghanistan. Iraqi and U.S. officials have said there is evidence that al-Qaeda leaders and recruits are diverting to Afghanistan and Pakistan because of setbacks in Iraq.
"The Taliban and al-Qaeda will not be allowed to return to power," Bush said. "The terrorists will suffer the same fate in Afghanistan that they are now suffering in Iraq -- and they will be defeated."
Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp., said Bush's characterization of Afghanistan is oversimplified and ignores evidence that the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies regained strength there because the U.S. military was focused on Iraq.
"The escalation in Afghanistan really has its own dynamic, regardless of developments in Iraq," he said. "Following our toppling of the Taliban, and putting al-Qaeda on the run, we then stopped paying attention to Afghanistan."
Kathleen Hicks, a former Pentagon policy planner and now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, called the renewed emphasis on Afghanistan "surreal." She also said Bush's deployment plans could serve to lower the temperature on the issue of troop levels in the presidential campaign.
"We're having a bit of a back-to-the-future effect," said Hicks, who left the Defense Department in 2006. "We've gone back to a point in their minds where Iraq is sort of a back-burner issue to some extent and Afghanistan is, like in 2001, the front-burner issue."
Staff writers Michael Abramowitz and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.