Obama Gaffes on Iraq and Afghanistan

By Ed O'Keefe

May 13, 2008 8:27pm

ABC News’ David Wright and Sunlen Miller Report: Sporting a shiny new American flag pin at an appearance in Rush Limbaugh’s hometown, Sen. Barack Obama came up with some novel reasons why the U.S. may be struggling in the war in Afghanistan.

"We don’t have enough capacity right now to deal with it — and it’s not just the troops," Obama, D-Ill., told a crowd in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

Obama posited — incorrectly — that Arabic translators deployed in Iraq are needed in Afghanistan — forgetting, momentarily, that Afghans don’t speak Arabic.

"We only have a certain number of them and if they are all in Iraq, then its harder for us to use them in Afghanistan," Obama said.

The vast majority of military translators in both war zones are drawn from the local population.
Naturally they speak the local language. In Iraq, that’s Arabic or Kurdish. In Afghanistan, it’s any of a half dozen other languages — including Pashtu, Dari, and Farsi.

No sooner did Obama realize his mistake — and correct himself — but he immediately made another.

"We need agricultural specialists in Afghanistan, people who can help them develop other crops than heroin poppies, because the drug trade in Afghanistan is what is driving and financing these terrorist networks. So we need agricultural specialists," he said.

So far, so good.

"But if we are sending them to Baghdad, they’re not in Afghanistan," Obama said.

Iraq has many problems, but encouraging farmers to grow food instead of opium poppies isn’t one of them. In Iraq, oil fields not poppy fields are a major source of U.S. technical assistance.

There are other infrastructure problems both countries share that U.S. advisors have struggled to address — a lack of safe roads, schools, adequate electricity, etc. — but Obama did not mention these.

Obama’s overall point may well be true: that U.S. efforts in Iraq have come at the expense of the battle against al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Still it’s not asking too much to expect the man many say will soon be the Democratic nominee to cite the right facts to back up his thesis.

UPDATE: Bill Burton, Obama campaign spokesperson, disputes this report, writing in to say, "This poorly researched and written piece is inaccurate in that it just completely ignores the need for Arabic translators in Afghanistan, and the need for agricultural specialists in Iraq. It is irresponsible to report such issues so matter-of-factly without checking out the actual facts. Please reference these very simple and easy to find websites to learn more about these issues: on the need for agricultural specialists in Iraq; and on the foreign fighters in Afghanistan.

To which, ABC News’ David Wright responds:

Interesting pushback from the Obama campaign on this story. It begs a response.

They point out that the U.S. has indeed deployed agricultural experts to Iraq, in an effort to work with aid organizations to rebuild Iraq’s food infrastructure. Other technical experts were deployed early on to southern Iraq to help rebuild the ravaged ecosystem of the Marsh Arabs, whom Saddam Hussein sought to exterminate. The U.S. and its allies sent much and varied assistance to the Iraqi people, including agricultural aid. My bad.

However, Obama’s point seemed to be that the Iraq effort constituted a brain drain in the Afghanistan agricultural problems, that the experts deployed to Iraq would otherwise have gone to Afghanistan to encourage Afghan farmers to grow food not poppies. That strikes me –- as someone who has covered the conflicts in both countries extensively — as doubtful. 

The main problem now in both Iraq and Afghanistan is the lack of security, which makes it too dangerous for the experts to do their work. 

As far as that goes, Obama’s overall point –- as noted in the original piece –- is probably valid. The vast numbers of troops needed to secure Iraq (unsuccessfully) have had an impact on the troop available for Afghanistan. Neither country is particularly safe right now. (Then again, Obama wants to start withdrawing the troops from Iraq. Would that make it any safer for agricultural experts and aid organizations to lend whatever hand is needed there?)

As for the point about Arabic translators needed for Afghanistan, the Obama campaign points to the well-documented presence of foreign fighters there, many of whom do speak Arabic. However, these folks are mostly shooting at NATO troops, not talking to them.

No doubt there are a handful of Arabic speakers employed at Bagram and Kandahar and other detention centers to interrogate foreign fighters captured on the battlefield. But I have not seen any reports that there is a shortage of such personnel, or that the need for such translators in Iraq has hamstrung the interrogators in Afghanistan.

Foreign fighters captured in BOTH Iraq and Afghanistan have also been sent to detention centers such as the one in Guantanamo. Is there a shortage of Arabic translators there or at other U.S. detention facilities overseas? That would be an interesting news story. Again, I haven’t seen any proof of it.

To reiterate: Obama’s main point may well be fair: that Iraq has made Afghanistan tougher to win by stretching our resources too thin. But are these really the best examples for him to cite of why this may be the case?

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