Speed Bump Ahead

Barack Obama has been saying that Iraq is a diversion and calls Afghanistan the “right” war. But if things get worse in Pakistan, the traditional Republican lead on national security could hand John McCain the advantage.

Afghanistan has long been an eyesore for Republicans. A resurgent Taliban; expansive poppy cultivation; Osama bin Laden's taunting survival; and the inability of the superpower to hold sway in neighboring Pakistan, despite the many billions in military aid spent there, have all belied the Bush administration's bravado.

The Democrats could hardly seem to lose when it came to Afghanistan. If the U.S. and NATO effort had any degree of success, then Democrats could argue that Afghanistan was the front with potential, while the administration's Iraq War was a futile diversion. If Afghanistan appeared to be in decline, Democrats could still blame the ill-conceived Iraq War for diverting resources from the real front in the war on terror.

But if conditions in Afghanistan and its strategically important neighbor Pakistan start to really spiral out of control before the November elections, voters may look to the Republican candidate as the guardian of national security and U.S. interests abroad. True, Senator John McCain has hardly outlined a coherent plan on Pakistan and Afghanistan and has even minimized the area's significance compared to Iraq, to counter Senator Barack Obama's pledge to focus more on the area. But polls (including Time and Rasmussen surveys released this week) have consistently demonstrated McCain's advantage over Obama on terrorism and national-security issues. If a serious crisis unfolds, voters may regard McCain as the more experienced and tougher candidate, prepared to deal with foreign chaos. Obama's promise of change may be less compelling if the electorate prefers restoration of stability and it would likely become Obama's burden to prove he could more effectively deal with Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Pakistan appears to be tottering at the moment, with profound implications for Afghanistan and the U.S. and NATO mission there. According to American University Professor Akbar Ahmed-who was one of the commissioners (the highest provincial office) of the frontier province of Baluchistan in Pakistan-the country is facing a confluence of multiple crises that appear to be escalating: uncertainty regarding the fate of President Pervez Musharraf (who could face impeachment proceedings); a complete breakdown of law and order in the frontier provinces bordering Afghanistan; uncertainty over potential U.S. military action within the country; destabilizing divisions within the new, ruling coalition government; an uptick in tensions with India; and soaring food prices that are causing dangerous levels of hunger and discontent.

It may be only a slight exaggeration to claim that Pakistan is increasingly seen as the source of Afghanistan's troubles. With the violence in Afghanistan now eclipsing that of Iraq, Bush reportedly presented Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani during his visit to Washington last week with proof of the involvement of Pakistani intelligence in the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul. A front-page article Monday in the New York Times described the frustration of commanders in the field with a strengthening and more brutal Taliban. A missile that struck in Pakistan just hours before Bush met with Gilani is widely believed to have been launched by the United States.

Surely, the ability of the Taliban to slink back into Pakistan presents a considerable operational challenge to U.S. forces in Afghanistan. But putting the problem that Pakistan presents aside, U.S. forces still face Taliban fighters that can hide in the raw and mountainous terrain along the Afghan side of the border and integrate almost seamlessly with the native population. As in Iraq, U.S. and NATO forces have difficulty in simply identifying the enemy, regardless of which side of the border they are on. And when the United States appears to have used force in Pakistan, it has often done so ineffectively, generating considerable blowback. The Pakistani government was particularly angered by a U.S. military strike last month that killed eleven Pakistani soldiers deployed at a border post, highlighting the difficulty of using force in the area.


Plans and Politics

Neither McCain nor Obama have articulated a comprehensive strategy to deal with Afghanistan and Pakistan. But on substance, McCain may be particularly vulnerable. McCain has repeatedly upheld Iraq, rather than Afghanistan, as the central front on terror. A crisis in South Asia would illustrate just how important the area is.

Obama's call for an increase of U.S. troops in Afghanistan presumably helps the senator to compensate politically for his call to withdraw troops from Iraq and dispel the notion he is weak on national security. McCain is now saying he also favors an "Afghan surge," but has equivocated by claiming U.S. troops would be sent as they become available from Iraq. Obama also generated much controversy after he said in a speech last August: "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will." Obama has since reiterated that pledge but did not repeat it after meeting with Gilani last week.

Obama is maintaining a narrow 5% national lead over John McCain, but the recent Time poll shows voters are increasingly favoring McCain to manage the war on terror, by a 56%-29% margin, up from 53%-33% in June. Despite his highly touted tour of Europe, the Middle East and Afghanistan last month, the poll shows that voters have increased their faith in McCain's ability to manage the Iraq War as well, favoring him over Obama by a margin of 51%-36%, a five-point jump since June. A Rasmussen poll released Tuesday shows that on national security, McCain leads Obama 52% to 40%.