Will Trouble in Afghanistan Become a Tough Campaign Issue for McCain?

| Thu Jul. 3, 2008 12:57 PM EDT

For two days in a row, The Washington Post has front-paged bad news on Afghanistan. First, the paper reported,

June was the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Afghanistan since the war there began in late 2001, as resilient and emboldened insurgents have stepped up attacks in an effort to gain control of the embattled country.
Defense officials and Afghanistan experts said the toll of 28 U.S. combat deaths recorded last month demonstrates a new resurgence of the Taliban, the black-turbaned extremists who were driven from power by U.S. forces almost seven years ago. Taliban units and other insurgent fighters have reconstituted in the country's south and east, aided by easy passage from mountain redoubts in neighboring Pakistan's lawless tribal regions.

Then, it noted,

The nation's top military officer said yesterday that more U.S. troops are needed in Afghanistan to tamp down an increasingly violent insurgency, but that the Pentagon does not have sufficient forces to send because they are committed to the war in Iraq.

It appears that the war in Afghanistan is going less well than the war in Iraq these days. And that is bad news in particular for John McCain.

Barack Obama, of course, has argued that invading Iraq was a profound error and distracted the U.S. government and military from finishing the job in Afghanistan. The above-referenced testimony from Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, supports that argument. With Mullen saying that the Iraq war has undermined the Afghanistan effort, how might McCain's respond to the charge that he and other supporters of the Iraq war undercut the mission in Afghanistan?

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At issue--politically for McCain--is whether Afghanistan will become a topic of focus and debate during the general election. For years, Afghanistan has largely been the forgotten war. There has been not much opposition to it--and no contentious fights in Congress over funding for the military operations there. The situation on the ground has been on a low boil for years. Policy wonks and a small number of politicians have been warning of trouble in Afghanistan, but their naysaying has not drawn much media attention. And the broadcast and television networks devote little airtime to covering the fighting there. Within the punditry, there is far more talk of what the next president will do about Iraq than Afghanistan.

But if Afghanistan explodes--that is, enough to attract media coverage--will McCain find himself in the position of defending two messy wars? Obama will have to talk about his plans for Afghanistan, but if there is a campaign face-off over Afghanistan, he will possess the built-in, I-told-you-so advantage of having opposed the Iraq invasion. And trouble in Afghanistan will serve as a reminder to voters that George W. Bush screwed up this task, and that's not likely to enhance McCain's prospects.

U.S. troops have been fighting, killing and dying in Afghanistan for nearly seven years--a longer stretch than the time it took to fight the First World War, the Second World War or the Korean War. Yet the management of this war has not been no hot issue within the political-media world. Bush will leave office without having been held accountable for how he has handled (or mishandled) the war. Yet if developments in Afghanistan continue on the current course, that war might become one more piece of Bush baggage that McCain must carry.

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