As John McCain and Barack Obama attempt to boost their foreign policy credentials, both candidates may find that whoever wins the White House will likely have to focus more attention on the conflict in Afghanistan than the debate over Iraq that has dominated much of the foreign policy discussion this campaign season.
After seven years of war and billions of dollars to support the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the security situation in Afghanistan is worsening as a resurgent Taliban mounts more attacks on U.S. troops. That makes it increasingly likely that the next administration will have to consider sending more troops to Afghanistan to meet the needs of military commanders.
As the number of U.S. fatalities has dropped in Iraq, those in Afghanistan have been steadily rising. In June, U.S. military fatalities in Afghanistan nearly equaled those in Iraq and were the highest since the start of the war in 2001. It's a reflection of a resurgent Taliban that has refocused the attention of Pentagon planners, but drawn little attention in a presidential campaign in which politicians have been more focused on Iraq.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen told reporters last week that he has been "deeply troubled" by the rising violence in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have "without question, grown more effective and more aggressive in recent weeks, and as the casualty figures clearly demonstrate."
The 28 American deaths in Afghanistan in June were one short of the 29 in Iraq, where the U.S. has more than four times as many troops. There are currently 32,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and 145,000 in Iraq. But the casualty rates of NATO allies are also rising. For the second month in a row, the total number of coalition combat deaths exceeded those in Iraq -- 46 in Afghanistan, compared with 31 in Iraq.
While much of the foreign policy debate for the election has centered on troop levels in Iraq, McCain and Obama have weighed in with different paths for the way ahead in Afghanistan.
"The next President has to set the priority about what is the central fight in the war on terror," says Sam Brannen, a security analyst with the Center for Strategic International Studies. "It will be tough to determine in the long run which is more critical and how it will affect your national security planning. They come in with grand plans, but they're really locked into the legacy of this administration's wars. And the war on terror will continue to be tough in Iraq and tough in Afghanistan."
Brannen attributes the worsening situation in Afghanistan on unrealistic security timetables set by the US and its allies, ineffective strategies to fight opium poppy production that has fueled the Taliban's attacks and a lack of social assistance that goes hand in hand with not enough coalition troops. He says it's a bad mix that means "the end goal of stability, which is the most critical element, seems to have slipped through our hands."
McCain acknowledges the importance of the conflict in Afghanistan but maintains the focus should remain on Iraq, which he considers to be the main front in the war on terror. Obama has labeled Iraq a diversion from the real fight in Afghanistan and has expressed support for military commanders to increase the number of troops in that country.