WASHINGTON – Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain shifted their foreign policy focus Tuesday 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 the effort in Afghanistan, with Obama, D-Ill., saying Iraq has been a distraction from the war on terrorism and McCain, R-Ariz., calling it a proving ground for the tactics needed to beat back a resurgent Taliban.
After weeks of verbal combat over Iraq, the similarities in the candidates’ prescriptions for Afghanistan were striking – even as the sniping between the two 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 regional 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 Tuesday by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden, D-Del., an Obama supporter, and Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who backs McCain, to triple humanitarian spending in Pakistan, contingent on a stronger effort to fight terrorism.
Tuesday 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 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 believe that the war in Afghanistan has been worth the costs and that the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida in the region must be won to triumph in the broader war on terrorism, according to a Washington Post poll released this week. Most Americans do not believe that about Iraq.
And the forgotten war isn’t quite so forgotten anymore. Last month, more U.S. service members died in Afghanistan than in Iraq.
Although both candidates acknowledged those dire circumstances, the Republican and Democratic hopefuls 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-Zawahri are recording messages to their followers and plotting more terror. The Taliban controls parts of Afghanistan. Al-Qaida 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 not made America 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, along with other fronts less visible to Americans. He also 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.”
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, N.M. “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.”