Afghanistan May Trump Iraq in War Debate

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.

The just-returned former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Dan McNeill, recently told reporters that the fight there was an "under-resourced war."

At a recent Pentagon town hall meeting, Mullen echoed those comments, calling Afghanistan "an economy of force campaign" and admitted, "We're short of forces there." He said that if the U.S. troop draw-downs continue in Iraq later this year, it would enable him to send to Afghanistan at least an additional three brigades, or 10,000 troops.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has repeatedly pressed NATO allies to contribute additional forces for the fight in Afghanistan, often with little success. At April's NATO Summit in Bucharest, only France committed to sending more troops, an additional 700 that would be sent to eastern Afghanistan. Germany recently announced it would send 1,000 more troops, but only to the more stable northern part of the country.

After a recommendation from Gates, President Bush told NATO leaders at the Bucharest Summit that the U.S. would provide "significant" numbers of U.S. troops in 2009, when he will no longer be in office. Gates expressed confidence that the next administration would likely come through with the request, given the high level of bipartisan support for the fight in Afghanistan.

While McCain has acknowledged the importance of the conflict in Afghanistan, he maintains that Iraq is the central fight and should remain the focus of the military's efforts. However, McCain has called for more NATO troops, the establishment of permanent bases and the expansion of U.S. training for the Afghan army.

Obama, on the other hand, has made it a key element of his campaign that the war in Iraq was a costly diversion from the more critical effort in Afghanistan. He has proposed sending at least two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan, as well as increasing nonmilitary aid to Afghanistan by at least $1 billion per year.

Michael O'Hanlon with the Brookings Institution argues that for Obama the drawing down of troops in Iraq will remain a bigger issue than Afghanistan. Namely because "people aren't going to mind sending two to three brigades to Afghanistan if we still have 15 in Iraq."

Military officials cite several reasons for the increase in violence, namely the Taliban's "safe haven" in the western tribal areas of Pakistan, where they can launch operations across the border into Afghanistan. Also, unable to defeat U.S. and NATO troops in conventional fighting, the various groups that make up the Taliban insurgency have resorted to tactics like those seen in Iraq, primarily the use of roadside bombs. A third factor cited by American commanders is that with more American troops on the ground than ever there is more combat as they move into areas controlled by insurgents.

Adm. Mullen said last week that in Afghanistan, "violence is up this year. Just about every single measure that we look at, it's up."

The commander of U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, was more precise last week when he said that the number of violent incidents in his sector had jumped by 40 percent in the first five months of this year over last year. This is in a region praised as a success story of American counterinsurgency efforts.

Schloesser and other military officials describe the "safe haven" in Pakistan as a major factor for the increase in violence in eastern Afghanistan as insurgents are able to easily slip back and forth along the border into Afghanistan. The safe haven was created by ceasefire agreements negotiated by the Pakistani government with tribal leaders.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has cited a "relaxation of pressure on the Pakistani side of the border" by the Pakistani government to describe what happened in the tribal areas as a result of those agreements. He has urged Pakistan to focus their energies on militants that can also be a threat to their security. That focus is complicated by the cloudy political situation in Pakistan as President Musharaff's political opponents are now running the government.

Gen. McNeill told reporters, "There's a certain amount of dysfunction that exists in Islamabad right now" and that it is difficult for Pakistanis "to figure out who exactly is in charge of the government."

There are now more foreign troops in Afghanistan than ever before; in addition to the 32,000 U.S. forces there are an almost equal number of NATO forces.

The recent arrival of 3,200 Marines in southern and western Afghanistan has led to an increase in fighting in those parts of the country.

The surge in violence was expected in Helmand Province as Marine combat forces launched offensive operations to take back control of areas long controlled by Taliban fighters.

But the spike in violence was unexpected in Farah Province in western Afghanistan, where Marines were sent to train local security forces. Nearly a third of June's fatalities took place in this once quiet western province. A senior defense official tells ABCNEWS that there has been a new flow of Taliban forces into Farah Province from Helmand Province to take advantage of a lower security troop presence there in order to launch increased attacks against coalition troops.

And it appears those Taliban attacks are getting more complex and sophisticated. Maj. Gen. Schloesser said roadside bomb attacks are now accompanied by small arms fire or ambushes on forces coming to assist other units that have been attacked. A deadly attack last week that killed three American soldiers and an Afghan interpreter involved just such an incident.

Some 2,200 Marines had their seven-month combat tours extended last week by a month, another indicator that there still aren't enough troops to build on the Marines' offensive success in southern Afghanistan. The extension was something that Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen had repeatedly said would not occur.

A senior defense official tells ABCNEWS that he expects a continued rise in violence in Afghanistan this year, topping last year's level. That's just another sign that in 2009 the political debate over the presence of US troops overseas will be about Afghanistan just as much as it will be about Iraq.