WASHINGTON — With the war in Afghanistan worsening by almost every measure, the often-overlooked conflict jumped to the center of the U.S. presidential campaign Tuesday as John McCain and Barack Obama both promised to send more U.S. troops.
They continued to differ sharply on Iraq.
In a Washington speech intended to burnish his credentials as a potential commander in chief, Democratic contender Obama repeated his pledge to remove U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months after taking office. He pledged to send at least two more combat brigades to Afghanistan to quell the growing Taliban insurgency.
The Iraq war "distracts us from every threat that we face and so many opportunities we could seize," said Obama, who's preparing his first trip overseas. "As president, I will make the fight against al Qaida and the Taliban the top priority that it should be. This is a war that we have to win."
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McCain, at a town hall meeting in Albuquerque, N.M., parried Obama and implicitly distanced himself from President Bush's handling of Afghanistan.
"The status quo is not acceptable. Security in Afghanistan has deteriorated, and our enemies are on the offensive," the Republican candidate said.
But McCain said Bush's buildup of troops in Iraq last year — which Obama opposed — was the right strategy, and should be replicated in Afghanistan. He pledged three more combat brigades of about 3,500 troops each, and proposed doubling the size of the Afghan army.
The sudden shift of emphasis to Afghanistan underscored that as security improves in Iraq, the next president's major challenge may lie in the revived Islamist revolt in Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal areas next door.
Violence is up sharply across much of Afghanistan, threatening the fragile, Western-backed government of President Hamid Karzai, and U.S. military officials say that al Qaida and its allies have been able to re-establish a sanctuary across the border in Pakistan.
On Sunday, Taliban fighters attacked and nearly overran an outpost in Nuristan province manned by U.S. and Afghan soldiers, killing nine Americans, one of the war's highest death tolls in a single incident.
NightWatch, a respected report compiled by former defense intelligence official John McCreary, said in a dispatch Monday that violence in Afghanistan set a new high in June. Attacks in a sampling of Afghan districts were up 50 percent over May, which had set the previous high.
"The fighting set new records for intensity, scope and frequency of attacks," the report said. "In several attacks (Taliban fighters) stood and fought NATO forces in conventional firefights until air power arrived. The last time they did that was in 2001."
The report noted "a measurable increase" in foreign fighters coming from Pakistan. "Uninhibited access to Pakistan as a safe haven and base area will have a transforming effect on the insurgency and makes it impossible to contain the escalation," it said. "Parts of Pakistan must be considered at war with NATO in Afghanistan."
Top U.S. commanders have said that three combat brigades, or roughly 10,000 troops, are needed on top of the some 49,000 U.S. and allied troops who are there now.
Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department intelligence analyst specializing in South Asia, said it was "almost a given" that the next president would have to shift more resources to Afghanistan.
"A new president is going to have to . . . reassess the whole situation there: How are we going about this?" said Weinbaum, who's now a scholar at the Middle East Institute.
In a sense, Obama, McCain and Bush all are open to criticism for their actions or positions on Iraq or Afghanistan.
Even Bush on Tuesday acknowledged setbacks in Afghanistan, where he began his "war on terrorism" nearly seven years ago.
Politically, the improvements in Iraq have forced Obama to defend his opposition to the troop increase there and his long-standing call for a prompt U.S. withdrawal. But the revived Afghanistan crisis could help illustrate his contention that Bush — along with McCain — has ignored the real peril to U.S. interests by focusing on Iraq.
McCain, saying he knows "how to win wars," proposed a broad strategy for Afghanistan that includes the troop increases, more nonmilitary aid for the country and a White House "czar" who'd focus on Afghanistan.
His aides attempted to belittle Obama's position on Afghanistan, arguing that he's never held a hearing on the issue as a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee chairman and never traveled there. Obama is expected to visit Afghanistan later this month.