John McCain Plays Catch-Up on Afghanistan

Our guest blogger is Colin Cookman, Special Assistant for National Security at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

mccainafghanistan.jpgJohn McCain attempted to play catch-up on the issue of Afghanistan today, delivering a speech on national security (which the campaign had initially scheduled for later in the week) in response to a foreign policy address by Democratic candidate Barack Obama. McCain, who secured his party’s nomination three and a half months ago and touts himself as a candidate with strong national security bona fides, does not discuss Afghanistan or Pakistan – where top U.S. intelligence officials have repeatedly warned Al Qaeda is operating “safe havens” – under the “national security” section of his campaign website and has not issued any recent major statements on the region.

In a 2007 Foreign Affairs article outlining his foreign policy vision, McCain called for more NATO military forces, military trainers, and police mentors for the country, but stopped short of pledging any additional American forces and offered little in the way of specifics on how to deal with the associated challenges in Pakistan.

McCain attempted to shed that position in his speech today and acknowledged the reality that progressives have been arguing for several years now: Afghanistan has been under-resourced and neglected by this administration and needs a greater commitment of resources, troops, and policy-making attention in order to staunch the slow slide towards instability that has been plaguing the country since the Bush administration, McCain, and other conservative leaders took us to war in Iraq in 2003.

In his speech today McCain pledged to dispatch three brigades of U.S. soldiers to the country, as well as doubling the size of the Afghan army to 160,000 troops and dispatching a “war czar” envoy to coordinate American activities in region. (We already have one of those, actually, but McCain says adding another man in Washington, this time tasked exclusively with the Afghan campaign, will help improve command-and-control.)

There are currently about five times as many U.S. soldiers in Iraq as Afghanistan, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen said last week that Afghanistan remained an “economy-of-force” campaign due to the strain being placed on our military by our presence in Iraq. “I don’t have troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach, to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq,” Mullen told reporters. The amount of money being spent in Iraq also dwarfs that in Afghanistan, which has received about $140 billion since 2001, compared to at least $524 billion in the Iraq war’s five-year history. Given McCain’s commitment to perpetuating the American presence in Iraq, it’s not clear where exactly he hopes to produce his three new brigades from.

McCain is trying to borrow rhetoric from progressive critics of the Bush administration to make up for a long silence on Afghanistan, but he’s yet to demonstrate a real appreciation of the underlying strategic reality facing the United States: our instruments of national power are not unlimited and Afghanistan, the original home of Al Qaeda and the Taliban who sheltered them, represents the real central front in any campaign against global terrorism. McCain may boast that he knows “how to win wars,” but so long as he clings to an open-ended commitment in Iraq, it seems unlikely that Afghanistan will ever become more than a second-tier priority for him – something which Afghans, and the United States, cannot afford for another four years.