McCain-Obama Showdown on Iraq

Many in the commentariat pounced on Wednesday's sharp exchange over Iraq between John McCain and Barack Obama as a preview of the general election debate, should the Illinois senator get the Democratic nomination. But the dustup between the two leading candidates also gave us a glimpse into the growing divide within the U.S. military over how to split resources between Iraq and Afghanistan.

Indeed, the presidential campaign this year could also become a Pentagon proxy war, with Sen. McCain largely taking the side of Gen. David Petraeus, the commander in Iraq, and Obama more representing the interests of the Army chief of staff, Gen. George Casey, who opposed the Bush-Petraeus "surge" and has openly worried about an Army that's "out of balance."

McCain and Obama fired at each other from two separate events Wednesday. Campaigning in Texas, McCain mocked Obama for suggesting that he would send troops back into Iraq "if Al Qaeda is forming a base there," as debate moderator Tim Russert put it. The Arizona Republican, assuming his already patented posture of the steady statesman correcting the bumbling upstart, said, "I have some news for Sen. Obama. Al Qaeda is in Iraq."

Hearing those remarks while stumping in Ohio, Obama was plainly intent on showing that he will brook no such treatment. "I have some news for John McCain," he shot back, "and that is that there was no such thing as Al Qaeda in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade … They took their eye off the people who were responsible for 9/11, and that would be Al Qaeda in Afghanistan that is stronger now than at any time since 2001."

As ammunition for their candidate's position, Obama's campaign is pointing to comments by Casey and other generals. A senior Obama adviser argued to me Thursday that his candidate, contrary to misunderstanding the challenge, is using a "wider lens" than McCain. "We don't have the luxury in this dangerous world to look solely at Iraq, and keep doubling down there," he said. "You've got to match strategy to resources."

The grim truth is that Al Qaeda is still flourishing in both Iraq and Afghanistan, with no end in sight, and the Pentagon currently does not have sufficient troops to deal with both crises. Even President Bush appeared to acknowledge the clash of priorities at a White House news conference Thursday morning. Asked about Obama's comment on Iraq, Bush remarked that Al Qaeda had been securing a base in Iraq for four years. But the president declined an opportunity to join McCain in directly criticizing or mocking Obama, and said, "One of the challenges we face is denying Al Qaeda a safe haven anywhere."

As Army Secretary Pete Geren summed it up before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, "Today we are an army long at war, in our seventh year in Afghanistan; next month, March, will be five years in Iraq. This is the third-longest war in American history, behind the Revolutionary War and the Vietnam War. And it is the longest war we've ever fought with an all-volunteer force." Both Geren and Casey said the army is badly stretched.

The debate between McCain and Obama—with Sen. Hillary Clinton on the sidelines for now—reflects serious behind-the-scenes tensions inside the military. In part because of the terrible strains on an army that has pushed its overseas deployments from the standard 12 months to a brutally long 15 months, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and senior Pentagon officials like Casey have been pressing to continue the drawdown in Iraq beyond the July cutoff date. That's when, under current plans, the United States will "pause" with 140,000 troops remaining there. (Petraeus announced last fall that he would withdraw five out of 20 Army brigades by July, reducing the U.S. presence from about 170,000 troops.)

But the Pentagon brass is also aware that the U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan appear to be losing ground to the resurgent Taliban/Al Qaeda forces there—or at best holding them to a stalemate. That all but guarantees the extremists a "safe haven" from which to attack U.S. interests around the world. A senior U.S. official, in remarks this week, said NATO was now in an "existential" crisis over Afghanistan and that he hoped the French, of all people, would pull Washington out of the crisis with additional deployments. But French President Nicolas Sarkozy is hesitating over such a move, and U.S. commanders on the ground in Afghanistan say they need more troops now. In addition, Afghanistan may be descending into a political crisis that is almost as serious as Iraq's; President Hamid Karzai is weaker than ever, confined to Kabul, and increasingly resentful of Western interference.

Obama says that if elected he would deploy an additional two brigades to Afghanistan. Sen. Joe Biden, a former Democratic contender who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—and also a potential secretary of state in an Obama or Clinton administration—told reporters this week that on a recent visit to Afghanistan he was informed by the U.S. commander of the international force there that he needed another two brigades, or about 10,000 U.S. troops, to take back Helmand and other provinces now controlled by the Taliban. "But he said, 'But I can't get 10,000 troops'," Biden said. Casey told the Armed Services Committee he hasn't even examined whether keeping 15 brigades in Iraq and adding two to Afghanistan is feasible.

Dan Senor, the former spokesman for the U.S. occupation in Iraq who now talks with various Republican candidates, including McCain, says McCain has to take the Obama critique seriously and move beyond mocking his younger, less experienced adversary. "McCain does have to walk through this," Senor told me. "He has to frame the debate to say that no matter how bad Afghanistan gets, if Iraq goes nothing else matters. A failed state in Iraq at this point is a far greater threat to American security interests around the world and of far greater urgency than pre-empting a possible failed state again in Afghanistan. That's the reality." Perhaps it is, or maybe it isn't. If McCain and Obama are nominated, it's a point that is certainly going to be debated until the fall.