Barack Obama this week renewed his case for ending the war in Iraq and focusing attention on Afghanistan before a trip to the countries and amid an intensifying debate with John McCain, his Republican rival, over the “war on terror”.
By Andrew Ward in Washington and Stephen Fidler in London
The presumptive Democratic presidential candidate said he remained committed to withdrawing all combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office, arguing that recent security gains had failed to repair the damage caused to US interests by the war.
Mr Obama has faced mounting pressure from Mr McCain to acknowledge the success of the US “surge” strategy in reducing violence and to modify his plans to end the war. But the Illinois senator on Tuesday said the gains of recent months should not be allowed to obscure the heavy costs of US involvement in Iraq.
“This war distracts us from every threat that we face and so many opportunities we could seize,” he said, citing the need for a greater focus on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and issues such as nuclear proliferation and energy security. “By any measure, our single-minded and open-ended focus on Iraq is not a sound strategy for keeping America safe.”
Mr Obama’s consistent opposition to the war in Iraq was one of his strongest assets in his Democratic primary battle with Hillary Clinton, who voted to authorise the 2003 invasion. But he has come under fierce attack from Mr McCain for committing to retreat from Iraq.
Public opinion remains broadly opposed to the war but a Washington Post poll this week showed more voters trusted Mr McCain, a Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war, on Iraq than Mr Obama by a margin of 47 per cent to 45 per cent.
Only 48 per cent said Mr Obama would be an effective military leader, compared with 70 per cent expressing trust in Mr McCain, highlighting the challenge the Democrat faces convincing voters he is ready to be commander-in-chief.
Mr Obama hopes to strengthen his national security credentials during his first overseas trip as a candidate next week, with stops planned in Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, Israel, Germany, France and the UK.
Mr McCain said that by restating his commitment to end the war before departing for Iraq, Mr Obama had proved his policies were driven by politics not facts on the ground.
The Arizona senator said his opponent was wrong to argue Iraq was not a central battleground in the “war on terror”.
“Senator Obama will tell you we can’t win in Afghanistan without losing in Iraq. In fact he has it exactly backwards. It is precisely the success of the surge in Iraq that shows us the way to succeed in Afghanistan.”
Both Mr McCain and Mr Obama promised this week to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan if elected, amid signs of a resurgence by al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the country.
Mr Obama said the deterioration in Afghanistan was an example of how Iraq had distracted from other threats and stretched the US military to breaking point.
The Financial Times