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Obama’s Trip Puts Focus on Candidates’ Iraq, Afghan Plans

July 21, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Sen. Barack Obama is working on his foreign policy credentials by meeting with leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan this week. Policy advisers discuss how Obama and GOP Sen. John McCain are approaching the conflicts.
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MARGARET WARNER: Barack Obama was in Iraq today, the second stop in an overseas trip highlighting the differences between him and his Republican rival, John McCain, over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama’s meetings in Iraq were preceded by a weekend visit to Afghanistan, where he talked with U.S. troops and the country’s president, Hamid Karzai.

In an interview there on CBS’ “Face the Nation” yesterday, Obama reargued his case for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq over a 16-month timeline, and adding troops to reinforce the effort in Afghanistan.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), Presidential Candidate: I believe U.S. troop levels need to increase. And I, for at least a year now, have called for two additional brigades, perhaps three. I think it’s very important that we unify command more effectively to coordinate our military activities.

But military alone is not going be enough. The Afghan government needs to do more, but we have to understand that the situation is precarious and urgent here in Afghanistan. And I believe this has to be our central focus, the central front on our battle against terrorism.

And I think one of the biggest mistakes we made strategically after 9/11 was to fail to finish the job here, focus our attention here. We got distracted by Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: McCain took issue with that today on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), Presidential Candidate: Look, you don’t have to choose to lose in Iraq in order to succeed in Afghanistan.

MARGARET WARNER: At a campaign appearance in Maine this afternoon, McCain hammered away at Obama’s approach to Iraq.

MCCAIN: We have to maintain the progress that we have. The major point here is, Senator Obama could not have gone to Iraq as he did because he opposed the surge. It was the surge that succeeded. It was the surge that — that has brought — that is winning this war. He opposed it. He said it wouldn’t succeed. He has still yet to say that it has succeeded.

MARGARET WARNER: The issue of when to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq has heated up in recent days. This weekend, a German magazine quoted Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, seeming to endorse Obama’s approach.

After the White House objected, a Maliki spokesman said the prime minister’s words had been misunderstood and mistranslated. Yet, last Friday, the White House said President Bush and Maliki had agreed to come up with a time horizon for the goal of withdrawing U.S. forces.

And, after Maliki and Obama met in Baghdad today, the prime minister’s spokesman told reporters, “We are hoping that, in 2010, combat troops will withdraw from Iraq.”

McCain’s stance appeared to draw support yesterday from Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen on “FOX News Sunday.”

CHRIS WALLACE, FOX NEWS: If I were to say to you, let’s set a timeline of getting all of our combat troops out within two years, what do you think would be the consequences of setting that kind of a timeline?

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN, JOINTS CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: I think the consequences could be very dangerous in that regard. I’m convinced at this point in time that coming — making reductions based on conditions on the ground are very important.

MARGARET WARNER: This is the second week in which McCain and Obama have sparred directly over the link between the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. In a speech in Washington last Tuesday, Obama renewed his vow to quickly send two more brigades to Afghanistan.

BARACK OBAMA: If another attack on our homeland comes, it will likely come from the same region where 9/11 was planned. And, yet, today, we have five times more troops in Iraq than Afghanistan. Senator McCain said just months ago that Afghanistan is not in trouble because of our diversion to Iraq. I could not disagree more.

MARGARET WARNER: McCain replied that same day in Albuquerque with his first detailed proposal for Afghanistan, saying he would send three more brigades.

JOHN MCCAIN: Senator Obama will tell you we can’t win in Afghanistan without losing in Iraq. In fact, he has it exactly backwards. It is precisely the success of the surge in Iraq that shows us the way to succeed in Afghanistan. With the right strategy and the right forces, we can succeed in both Iraq and Afghanistan. And they are not disconnected. Success breeds success. Failure breeds failure. I know how to win wars.

McCain, Obama disagree on war front

Max Boot
McCain Campaign Adviser
John McCain believes we have to fight and win on both battlefields, but he believes it would be a disaster if we were to lose in Iraq. That would embolden al-Qaida. That would embolden our enemies all over the world.

MARGARET WARNER: Obama's trip continues elsewhere in the Middle East and to Europe.

We take up the Obama and McCain agendas for Iraq and Afghanistan now with Lawrence Korb, former assistant secretary of defense and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He's an informal adviser to the Obama campaign. And Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, he's an informal adviser to the McCain campaign. Both men have been to Iraq within the past year.

And welcome to you both. Let me start by asking -- and I will start with you, Lawrence Korb -- is it fair to say that the crux of the difference between these two candidates on these two conflicts is, what is the central front in the war on terrorism?

LAWRENCE KORB, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress: Very definitely.

Senator Obama was on record back in 2002, before we went into Iraq, saying it was a dumb war, because it would divert ourselves from the central front on the war on terror. There were no al-Qaida in Iraq before we went there.

According to our intelligence community, this is where al-Qaida central is reconstituting themselves, on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. And what Senator Obama is saying -- and I agree with it -- I'm not speaking for him, but this has been my position all along -- that you can't tie yourself to events in Iraq and ignore Afghanistan. I think that's the key thing.

MARGARET WARNER: But -- but do you think he is saying that you can ignore events in Iraq to shift the attention to Afghanistan?

LAWRENCE KORB: No, I think what he is saying is, if you give the Iraqis a timeline, which both the American people and the Iraqi people -- and the Iraqi parliament, by the way -- they have sent a letter to our Congress saying that they will not agree to keep us there without a timeline -- I think this will get the Iraqis to make the political compromises they need. And this will get the countries in the region to work constructively to ensure that Iraq does not become a failed state.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Max Boot, John McCain believes the first priority remains Iraq; is that right?

MAX BOOT, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations: John McCain believes that we have to win the war on terrorism wherever the terrorists are. And, certainly, for the last several years, they have been in Iraq. Osama bin Laden himself has talked about Iraq as being central to al-Qaida's strategy. And that is where we had to fight them.

Now, if we had taken Barack Obama's advice, we would have pulled all of our combat troops out of Iraq by March of this year. And can you imagine what the country would look like at that point? It would be far worse than 2006. It would be chaos. There would be ethnic cleansing. It would be a victory for Iran and al-Qaida.

Now, thankfully, George W. Bush adopted John McCain's plan to surge, instead of to leave. And, as a result of that, we have seen violence drop over 80 percent over the last year. This is despite the opposition of Senator Barack Obama and other Democrats, who opposed the surge.

Now, if we had listened to them, it would have been a disaster. Now that we are starting to get Iraq under control, it makes sense to send some more troops to Afghanistan, where, clearly, the situation has deteriorated in the last six months or a year or so.

John McCain believes we have to fight and win on both battlefields, but he believes it would be a disaster if we were to lose in Iraq. That would embolden al-Qaida. That would embolden our enemies all over the world. Now that we are starting to win in Iraq, we can turn our attention in Afghanistan. And he has proposed a strategy for winning there as well.

Success, failure of troop surge

Lawrence Korb
Obama Campaign Adviser
It was a factor, but was not nearly as big a factor as the Sunni insurgents laying down their arms, because the -- we now call them the Sons of Iraq. We are paying them. We are training them. It was about 100,000 of them.

MARGARET WARNER: Lawrence Korb, what about this point that McCain hammered at today, that he says Senator Obama was wrong to have opposed the surge, and that, in fact, the success of the surge is what has made possible, even, the thought of diverting any troops from Iraq to Afghanistan?

LAWRENCE KORB: No. The surge means that we added 20,000 more combat troops.

But what began to turn things around in Iraq was, in 2006, after the Democrats won control of the Congress, the -- what they called the Sunni insurgents became known as the Sons of Iraq -- you had the Al Anbar awakening -- said that they would team up with us to go after al-Qaida in Iraq, because al-Qaida in Iraq had been so violent, the things they had done. And they realized that we were not going to be there forever.

This is the deal, that that has gotten the violence down in Al Anbar Province, which is where it was the heaviest. And then, even before the surge was completed, in February 2007, Sadr, Muqtada al-Sadr, told his militia to lay down their arms.

MARGARET WARNER: But are you saying that the surge, the 20,000 additional combat forces, aren't a significant factor in why things are more peaceful?

LAWRENCE KORB: It was a factor, but was not nearly as big a factor as the Sunni insurgents laying down their arms, because the -- we now call them the Sons of Iraq. We are paying them. We are training them. It was about 100,000 of them. But this is a deal we could have had in 2004. We didn't take it. We took it in 2006, because -- after the election.

MARGARET WARNER: Max Boot, if I could come back to you on Senator McCain's position and how that is going to jibe with the views of the Iraqi government, if he were to become president -- and I think it is pretty clear what the Maliki government is saying, despite their, gee, that isn't quite what we meant, but then they said it again today, which is they seem to share Senator Obama's timetable.

Could a Senator McCain persist in wanting a long-term stationing of U.S. forces, which at least was his original position, in the face of that kind of opposition?

MAX BOOT: I don't think there's really as much of a conflict between Senator McCain's view and the view of the Iraqi government as it appears.

First, let me, if I could just very quickly, correct a misapprehension that Larry Korb is perpetrating here, the same one that Barack Obama has perpetrated before, which is to say that the success that we are seeing in Iraq as a result of the Democratic victory in the November 2006 election.

Now, that is just bizarre, because anybody who has been to Iraq knows that the Al Anbar awakening...

LAWRENCE KORB: If you want to correct me, then I'm going to come back, OK? She asked you a question. Answer that one.

MAX BOOT: Larry, let me finish my sentence, please.

Anybody who has been to Iraq knows that the Al Anbar awakening began in September of 2006, months before the Democrats took office in the United States. And anybody who has been to Iraq recently also knows that there is no way that these brave Sunnis or the Sons of Iraq would be risking their lives if they saw that American troops were on their way out.

The only reason they are willing to stand and fight against al-Qaida is because they know that the commitment of the United States remains secure and that we will stand with them.

MARGARET WARNER: Go back to Senator McCain's...

MAX BOOT: Now, let me answer the question.

MARGARET WARNER: Please, yes.

MAX BOOT: Yes, absolutely. Let me answer the question about Senator McCain's views and Prime Minister Maliki's views.

Chances of withdrawal timeline

Lawrence Korb
Obama Campaign Adviser
If he were to come in, basically, he would start the withdrawal of the brigades, so you would not replace the brigades. So, within the first couple of months, you would have the two to three brigades there.

MAX BOOT: Now, remember, Prime Minister Maliki is a politician. So, you have to pars his words very, very carefully. And you have to understand that he is, to some extent, posturing for domestic political advantage, because he wants to present himself as a nationalist to win votes in the upcoming provincial elections.

He's also in tough negotiations with the Bush administration, and talking about withdrawal timetables gives him some leverage there. But you have to look very carefully at what he said. He did not say that they will impose a timetable. He said that they hope that U.S. troop could leave by 2010, which is fine. That's essentially -- Senator McCain hopes that U.S. combat troops can leave fairly soon, too.

The difference is, Senator McCain has said that any reductions in combat forces have to be based on conditions on the ground, not on rigid timetables imposed in advance. And, if you listen to what Prime Minister Maliki and his spokesmen are saying, they agree with that.

They agree that we can only have these major withdrawals of American troops if conditions on the ground permit. But that's something that Senator Barack Obama does not agree with. He wants to reduce U.S. troops, no matter what conditions on the ground are. And nobody can predict what Iraq will look like two years from now.

So, it is incredibly irresponsible and very dangerous, as Admiral Mullen said, to try to create a rigid timeline to which we adhere no matter what happens in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: OK.

We are almost out of time, and I do want to ask a question about Afghanistan.

Under a President Barack, how quickly, Lawrence Korb, would additional brigades be available to send to Afghanistan?

LAWRENCE KORB: Well, in -- rather than replacing the brigades in Iraq as they finish their tour, you would then divert them to Afghanistan.

If you -- basically, if he comes in, and there's 15 brigades, that means about a brigade-and-a-half a month would finish their 12-month -- 12-month tour.

MARGARET WARNER: But give us a real timeline for inserting more troops.

LAWRENCE KORB: Well, he -- in fact, Senator Obama said -- and I think we can't wait. But, if he were to come in, basically, he would start the withdrawal of the brigades, so you would not replace the brigades. So, within the first couple of months, you would have the two to three brigades there.

Troop surge in Afghanistan

Max Boot
McCain Campaign Adviser
We have just withdrawn five brigades from Iraq. We have taken five out. That means that, next year, we're going to have the capability to put some more into Afghanistan, no matter what happens in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: And -- and, Max Boot, a President McCain, would he divert no troops to Afghanistan until he felt Iraq was secure? And how long would that be?

MAX BOOT: Well, Senator -- well, Senator McCain has already said that he would surge three brigades into Afghanistan, which is more than what Senator Obama has proposed.

MARGARET WARNER: But I mean how, with what?

MAX BOOT: Well, it's not hard, because we have just withdrawn five brigades from Iraq. We have taken five out. That means that, next year, we're going to have the capability to put some more into Afghanistan, no matter what happens in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: But, excuse me, let me just -- may I interrupt you?

MAX BOOT: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: Doesn't -- the brigades that are coming out have been on very long rotations. Haven't the rotations been shortened, so there isn't the same availability?

MAX BOOT: Well, you can have 12-month rotations. You can have 15-month rotations. Ideally, you want to have troops getting as much rest as possible.

Ideally, you also want to have more troops available. If President Bush had listened to Senator McCain and some others, and had expanded the size of the active-duty ground forces years ago, we would have more options at this point.

But, right now, we have -- certainly have the capability to surge two brigades, three brigades, whatever is necessary, into Afghanistan next year. And keep in mind, as the situation in Iraq improves, Senator McCain is in favor of more withdrawals. He is not opposed to withdrawals. He has said that he would bring most American troops home from Iraq by the end of his first term in 2013.

The difference is, he wants to wait until he sees what the conditions on the ground are, and not impose a rigid timetable for withdrawal. And that's his big difference with Senator Obama.

It's not a question of whether one is going to withdraw and one is going to stay forever. That is a caricature. The reality is, one wants to withdraw no matter what -- and, if we had taken his advice now, Iraq would be a disaster...

MARGARET WARNER: All right.

MAX BOOT: ... whereas Senator McCain wants to wait and look at conditions on the ground and listen to his commanders, which is not something that Senator Obama has been doing by releasing his plan before he showed up in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: Max Boot, sorry to interrupt, but we are going have to leave it there.

Thank you both.