WASHINGTON - One day after his Democratic rival proposed an escalation of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Republican presidential candidate John McCain called for a surge of as many as 15,000 troops to address the deteriorating security situation there.
It was the first time that McCain had urged a specific increase in allied troops in Afghanistan and came as the presidential contenders dueled via long distance yesterday over foreign policy. The exchange also reflected a shift in emphasis away from Iraq and toward Afghanistan as a top campaign issue.
"Security in Afghanistan has deteriorated, and our enemies are on the offensive," said McCain, continuing an effort to focus attention on national defense, his area of greatest perceived expertise. "From the moment the next president walks into the Oval Office, he will face critical and crucial decisions about Afghanistan."
Both candidates advocated the need for a force buildup, more western economic and counter-narcotics aid to the Afghan government, and a renewed effort to target al-Qaida and capture Osama bin Laden in remote tribal regions along the Pakistan-Afghan border.
However, the two men drew sharply different conclusions about the link between the conflict in Iraq and increased fighting in Afghanistan, which recently produced the highest monthly death toll for U.S. forces since the war began in 2001.
Obama, speaking in Washington, described Iraq as a distraction that "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." The Illinois senator repeated his call for adding up to 10,000 U.S. troops to the multinational force in Afghanistan, which he said his plan for withdrawing combat forces from Iraq would make possible.
Obama said the increased violence in Afghanistan was "a consequence of our current strategy," which increased U.S. forces in Iraq. His remarks were part of a public-relations buildup to his first overseas campaign trip to the Middle East and Europe next week, along with a visit to Iraq and Afghanistan.
McCain responded a few minutes later from New Mexico, highlighting the success of the Iraq surge, which Obama opposed, and calling it a model for Afghanistan. Polls show that one of McCain's biggest advantages over Obama is as a prospective commander in chief, and he has sought to highlight that edge by raising doubts about Obama's lack of national security experience.
"I know how to win wars," the Arizona senator said. "If I'm elected president, I will turn around the war in Afghanistan, just as we have turned around the war in Iraq."
McCain, an early critic of the Bush administration's Iraq military operation, offered implicit criticism of the U.S.-led strategy in Afghanistan, pointing to the lack of "a nationwide civil-military campaign plan" that would provide security for Afghan citizens.
"Today, no such integrated plan exists. When I am commander in chief, it will," he said to applause at a town hall meeting in Albuquerque.
The withdrawal of U.S. surge forces from Iraq will free up troops for Afghanistan, where "at least" three additional brigades, or about 15,000 troops, must be sent, he said. A campaign aide indicated later that McCain's proposal included an unspecified combination of both U.S. and NATO forces.
Tied up in Iraq
The head of the U.S. military, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this month that he doesn't have the forces he needs for the fighting in Afghanistan because they are tied down in Iraq, and the Marine Corps recently extended the deployments of some of its units in Afghanistan.
President Bush said again yesterday that the U.S. would send more troops to Afghanistan, repeating earlier pledges to add more forces by the end of this year. U.S. troops make up slightly more than half of the 60,000 allied forces now in Afghanistan, in addition to about 145,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
McCain and Obama both called for improved relations with Pakistan's new government, to combat increasing extremist violence stemming from the mountainous region along the Afghan border.
Obama proposed increased humanitarian aid to Pakistan but repeated an earlier vow to act unilaterally against "high-level terrorist targets" if Pakistan "cannot or will not act."
McCain said he would appoint a presidential envoy to address disputes between Afghanistan and its neighbors, while providing greater development, health and education aid to Pakistan's new government.
He said Obama was "trying to sound tough" with his "bluster" about unilateral military action.
Obama is expected to visit Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps as early as this weekend, with two war critics, Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. Both have been mentioned as potential running mates for Obama.
The Democratic candidate will meet with high-level officials in Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Britain, France and Germany. He plans a major public speech in Berlin, an unusual campaign event on foreign soil for a U.S. candidate.
Foreign travel by presidential contenders is routine, particularly after they have clinched their party's nomination, and McCain has already visited Europe, the Middle East and, more recently, Colombia and Mexico.
He also attended a fundraising event for his campaign in London during a March trip.