The two wars

Our view: America's next president won't have much time to debate the country's next moves in Afghanistan and Iraq

November 02, 2008

While the troubled economy has preoccupied voters and dominated candidates' speeches, America's two wars have retreated into the background of the presidential campaign. Iraq and Afghanistan get some play on the stump if Sarah Palin wants to highlight running mate John McCain's military bona fides or Barack Obama suggests, as he did in his infomercial last week, where else the U.S. could have spent the billions consumed by the war.

But the Afghan war has veered dangerously off track, and the U.S. presence in Iraq is mired in Baghdad's approval of an agreement on Americans' withdrawal from the country. Without a settlement at year's end, the U.S. would have to try and renew the U.N. mandate that permits U.S. troops in Iraq, which would bring its own nettlesome problems.

The Afghan situation, however, has deteriorated to such a degree that the Bush administration felt compelled to brief advisers for both Senators McCain and Obama on their concerns. Taliban insurgents and al-Qaida supporters have turned the tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistan border into such a treacherous haven that some action may have to be taken before the next president takes office. The situation is so dire that the Afghan government has reached out to some Taliban groups to discuss a possible cease-fire. U.S. involvement in those talks could vary depending on who wins the U.S. election Tuesday.

Meanwhile, more U.S. troops are dying because of Taliban attacks. Senators McCain and Obama support sending more troops to Afghanistan, but getting soldiers there is constrained by deployments in Iraq. Some experts have urged the Bush administration to consider recruiting Afghan tribes to help fight the Taliban. But the chief commanding officer in Afghanistan, Gen. David D. McKiernan, has reservations, as he rightly recognizes that the Iraq model of partnering with Sunni tribes isn't as applicable to the Afghan experience.

That puts the alarming escalation of the Afghan war and deliberations on swift approval of the U.S.-Iraq status of forces agreement at the top of the agenda for the next president even before he officially takes office. The economy may turn out to be the easier mess to unravel.

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