McCain Backs Obama On Afghanistan But Cautions: We Aren't Winning

In a speech to a largely conservative audience on Wednesday, Sen. John McCain applauded President Obama's decision to add 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, but declared, ominously, that without a change in strategy the United States could lose the war in that country.

"In Afghanistan today, we are not winning," he said. "Let us not shy from the truth, but let us not be paralyzed by it either."

Speaking before a packed crowd at the American Enterprise Institute, McCain drew many parallels between the chaos and violence in Afghanistan today and that which confronted U.S. troops in Iraq in 2005-2006. In this context he said he "welcomed the President's decision last week to deploy some 17,000 additional troops" to that country, given "the dire state of affairs there" but cautioned that a change in mission had to come with the influx of forces.

In an address meant to conjure up images of McCain's call for a surge in Iraq in 2005, the Arizona Republican did not shy away from striking sometimes dire notes. He proclaimed that without a change of strategy, Afghanistan would return to its Taliban-era form; and, to this point, he outlined several changes in strategy that he would like to see the President undertake, not least of which was to do more than simply send more troops into the breach.

• Reapply the principles of counterinsurgency: "in Afghanistan, if we focus on counterterrorism to the exclusion of counterinsurgency, we will only ensure that we successfully execute neither."
• Help the Afghan security forces surge as well: "Everyone knows the United States increased the number of its soldiers in Iraq during 2007. What is less well known is that the Iraqis surged with us."
• Change alliance diplomacy: "the United States should continue to encourage European troop contributions and press for the reduction of caveats on their use."
• Increase and reform non-military assistance
• Get control of the narcotics problem
• Work regionally: "We should start by empowering the new civilian government in Islamabad to defeat radicalism with greater support for development, health, and education."
• Communicate the stakes and the challenges to the American people.

"None of this will be easy," he summarized. " While today Afghanistan is seen by many as "the good war" and the one into which the dispatch of thousands of additional American troops can go mostly uncontested, this day may soon pass. It is possible -- indeed likely -- that sometime in the near future, perhaps a year from now, as the fighting in Afghanistan increases, the costs grow more dear and casualties become more numerous and more visible, that the will to finish this mission will dramatically erode."

The tone of McCain's address was a bit more nuanced than that used during the campaign (indeed, the Senator often found himself criticized for not taking that war seriously enough.) The acknowledgment that regional and local actors needed to supplement any increase in U.S. forces, for instance, was largely glossed over by the Arizona Republican when he touted the efficacy of the surge in Iraq. But, in looking back at the campaign debates on Afghanistan policy, the disagreements between McCain and Obama ended up largely on the edges. After downplaying the need to supplement forces in Afghanistan, McCain came around to the notion, though he continued to insist that a drawdown from Iraq was not necessary to free up the forces. His criticism of Obama, indeed, was more on his opposition to the surge in Iraq than on his commitment to a similar influx of forces in Afghanistan.