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Obama, McCain clash on Iraq, Afghanistan

McCain 2008
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., addresses the audience during a town hall-style meeting in Albuquerque, N.M., on TuesdayCarolyn Kaster / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Sen. Barack Obama said Tuesday that overall U.S. interests have been hurt rather than helped by the Bush administration's decision to increase troop strength in Iraq 18 months ago, and vowed to stick to his plan to withdraw combat troops within 16 months of becoming president.

Obama said his White House rival, Sen. John McCain, "has argued that the gains of the surge mean that I should change my commitment to end the war. But this argument misconstrues what is necessary to succeed in Iraq, and stubbornly ignores the facts of the broader strategic picture that we face."

In a speech delivered in advance of an overseas trip, Obama said fighting al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan would be his top priority. Beyond that, he called for securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states, achieving energy security and rebuilding international alliances.

McCain immediately shot back that the surge in Iraq had worked. He said he knows "how to win wars" and promised to capture Osama bin Laden.

McCain has described Obama's call for withdrawal from Iraq as tantamount to declaring defeat and points to the lower levels of violence in Iraq as evidence that sending additional U.S. troops there has been a successful strategy.

"Sen. Obama will tell you we can't win in Afghanistan without losing in Iraq. In fact, he has it exactly backwards," McCain told a town hall meeting. "It is precisely the success of the surge in Iraq that shows us the way to succeed in Afghanistan."

Obama's speech, billed as a major address by the campaign, offered no new policy, but an explanation of his opposition to the war and his pledge to complete a U.S. troop pullout within 16 months of becoming president.

The speech followed a new Washington Post/ABC poll in which 50 percent of the respondents supported his timetable for withdrawal from Iraq and 49 percent opposed it. But by a margin of 47 percent to 45 percent, respondents said they trusted McCain more to handle Iraq; 72 percent said McCain would be a good commander-in-chief versus 48 percent who said the same of Obama.

The poll also indicated that Iraq is no longer the public’s top concern; the economy is. Sixty-three percent of the respondents said the Iraq war hasn’t been worth fighting. And while 34 percent  believe that the U.S. must win in Iraq for the broader war on terror to be successful, 51 percent say that of Afghanistan.

With his speech, Obama sought to cast the debate over the war in Iraq — and in particular the surge — in a wider context.

"Senator McCain wants to talk of our tactics in Iraq; I want to focus on a new strategy for Iraq and the wider world," he said.

"This war distracts us from every threat that we face and so many opportunities we could seize. This war diminishes our security, our standing in the world, our military, our economy, and the resources that we need to confront the challenges of the 21st century," he said.

"By any measure, our single-minded and open-ended focus on Iraq is not a sound strategy for keeping America safe."

McCain's blueprint
During McCain's speech in Albuquerque, the GOP candidate laid out a blueprint for intensified military efforts in Afghanistan, where nine U.S. soldiers were killed and 14 injured in a militant attack Sunday, the U.S. military's highest death toll there in three years.

"The status quo is not acceptable. Security in Afghanistan has deteriorated, and our enemies are on the offensive," he said. "From the moment the next president walks into the Oval Office, he will face critical decisions and crucial decisions about Afghanistan."

Three more brigades should be sent to Afghanistan, McCain said, as well as a presidential envoy to deal with countries vying for power in the region.

In his speech, McCain said the extra brigades could be brought to Afghanistan as troops are removed from Iraq, but speaking later to reporters he hedged on whether some of those troops could come from NATO instead of the United States.

He also insisted there was a "vast difference" between Obama's call for more troops in Afghanistan and his own.

Obama "has no strategy," insisted McCain. "All he has done is say we need more troops."

McCain contends more foreign troops won't be enough to bring security to Afghanistan.

The Afghan army must be doubled to about 160,000 troops, he said, and he called on foreign countries to help pay for the cost of the increase. The increase in security problems has come even with more NATO troops in Afghanistan. McCain said the area needs a supreme unified military commander in charge of all the forces in the region to mount an effective counterinsurgency program.

The border with Pakistan is particularly troublesome for U.S. anti-terrorism efforts in the region. In his town-hall comments, McCain faulted Obama for saying that he would consider unilateral military action in Pakistan to strike at al-Qaida leadership.

"In trying to sound tough, he has made it harder for the people whose support we most need to provide it. I won't bluster and I won't make idle threats. But understand this, when I am commander in chief, there will be nowhere the terrorists can run and nowhere they can hide," he said.

McCain also proposed appointing a White House czar on the Afghanistan war.

President Bush has already appointed a so-called "war czar" for both Iraq and Afghanistan, but McCain said he wanted someone reporting to him with direct responsibility for Afghanistan. Obama said Monday he would send at least two more brigades to Afghanistan.

"I will get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice," McCain said of the al-Qaida leader the U.S. has pursued futilely since the group's Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

'I will end this as president'
Obama's successful run through the Democratic presidential primaries was fueled in part by his opposition to Bush's plans for an invasion of Iraq in 2003, and his 16-month timetable for a withdrawal has long been a staple of his speeches.

"In the 18 months since the surge began, the strain on our military has increased, our troops and their families have borne an enormous burden, and American taxpayers have spent another $200 billion in Iraq," he said.

He added that in Afghanistan, "June was our highest casualty month of the war. The Taliban has been on the offensive, even launching a brazen attack on one of our bases. Al-Qaida has a growing sanctuary in Pakistan."

The speech was a high-profile explanation of his opposition to the war, and allowed Obama to pledge to complete a U.S. troop pullout within 16 months of becoming president. It also gave him a forum for criticizing President Bush and McCain.

"I will end this war as president," he said, speaking from a podium that said "Judgment to Lead." Obama addressed the crowd with a line of American flags behind him.

Obama delayed his appearance for half an hour for a presidential news conference that the White House announced Tuesday morning during the same time that Obama was scheduled to be speaking just three blocks away.

President Bush was asked what advice he might give Obama as he prepared to visit Iraq. The president said he would ask Obama to listen carefully to Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

"It's a temptation to let the politics at home get in the way, you know, with the considered judgment of the commanders," Bush said. He defended his policy and maintained that the effort in Iraq was succeeding and acknowledged that the war in Afghanistan remained "a tough fight."
Meanwhile, the New York Daily News reported that the Obama campaign altered its Web site to remove a statement that Bush's surge of troops in Iraq "is not working." Over the weekend, the site was changed to describe an "improved security situation" at the cost of U.S. lives.

Campaign aide Wendy Morigi told the newspaper that Obama is "not softening his criticism of the surge. We regularly update the Web site to reflect changes in current events."