As Afghanistan boils, McCain keeps focus on Iraq
For voters, a resurgent Taliban may challenge McCain's view that Iraq is the center of the war on terror.
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McCain came closest to sketching a new direction in remarks to a newspaper industry group in April. He suggested that the Bush administration had relied too much on technology – and not enough on spies – in its efforts to foil Al Qaeda.Skip to next paragraph
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"We don't have today sufficient numbers and kinds of people who can go into Waziristan, in one of the most ungoverned places on earth, … and blend in with the countryside and the people and gather information and get it back to us, because human intelligence is the only way you are able to ascertain the intentions of the enemy," he said, after a reporter asked about his pledge in a May 2007 presidential debate to follow bin Laden to the "gates of hell."
Obama has set a 16-month timetable for the withdrawal of major combat troops from Iraq and would commit two additional brigades to Afghanistan to reinforce counterterrorism operations there. He has also pledged a $1 billion increase in nonmilitary aid to the country, partly to find new work for poppy farmers who benefit from the heroin trade. In a remark that sparked controversy, he said he would not rule out a unilateral strike in Pakistan.
"If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will," he said in a Washington speech last August.
McCain later highlighted the statement as a sign of Obama's lack of foreign-policy experience. "You don't broadcast that you are going to bomb a country that is a sovereign nation," McCain, who has endorsed a cooperative approach with Mr. Musharraf, said in February. "It's just fundamentals of the conduct of national security policy."
McCain supports an open-ended troop presence in Iraq. Though critical of the Bush administration's war planning, he has said that defeat in Iraq would embolden Islamic extremists, provide a sanctuary for terrorists, destabilize the Middle East, and strengthen Iran.
He assigns a lower priority to Afghanistan and Pakistan. In an essay last fall for the journal Foreign Affairs, he called for a larger and more agile NATO force in Afghanistan, better training for Afghan soldiers, and a variety of civil reforms. He also proposed technical assistance to help Pakistanis root out terrorist cells, cultivate political moderates, and remove children from extremist madrassahs.
"There is lots we need to do in Afghanistan," Schake, McCain's adviser, acknowledged Wednesday during a conference call, responding to a question from the Monitor. "But we don't surrender to Al Qaeda in Iraq. That doesn't help American interests."
McCain aides faulted Obama early last week after high-profile supporters of the Illinois senator said recent advances in Iraq would not change Obama's 16-month withdrawal timetable. Later in the week, however, Obama signaled some flexibility, saying he would "continue to refine my policy" after visiting Iraq later this summer.
How voters respond to McCain's continued focus on Iraq may depend on how closely they are following the news, some analysts say.
"If the public is not aware that Al Qaeda is cropping up in North Africa and Afghanistan and other locations, then McCain's message might be accepted," says Gordon Smith, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. "For those members of the public who are well informed, to hear him argue as if Al Qaeda exists primarily in Iraq might lead to questions of, 'What's he thinking? Where's he getting his information from?' "