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By Leo Shane III, Stars and Stripes
Used with permission from Stars and Stripes.
© 2008 Stars and Stripes
WASHINGTON — Democratic Sen. Barack Obama wants to keep Guardsmen and Reservists closer to home, believes military families need a bigger voice in government, and sees a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq even with his plans for a drawdown of combat troops there.
In an Aug. 6 interview with Stars and Stripes, the presidential candidate said his opposition to the increase in troop levels in Iraq last year “doesn’t detract from the heroic work that our troops have performed,” and believes his plan for a similar “surge” in Afghanistan is a more balanced, responsible plan.
Here is a partial transcript from the candidate’s interview:
Question: A lot of the issues we’ve been following for the military have been touched on, but not the specifics that we’d like. I wanted to start with Afghanistan, which you mentioned earlier today. You’ve talked about sending more combat brigades there, but in the last week Secretary of Defense (Robert) Gates said there’s no immediate plan for that. I don’t know if that’s something we should be doing immediately, getting troops in there, and if so how can we do that in the next six months, seven months?
Sen. Obama: In speaking with the commanders in Afghanistan, as well as folks who are out in the field, the strong impression was that more troops are needed and that we are spread thin. It’s not the only solution, but it is part of a more comprehensive focus on what I consider to be the central front on terrorism.
We still have to do a better job of dealing with the narcotics industry in Afghanistan, which is funding a lot of terrorist activity. We still have to push the Afghan government to work more effectively in providing basic services to their people. Our infrastructure spending has been lacking. We don’t have the kind of non-military expeditionary force that we could use. USAID, State Department, having enough non-combatants who are in the field helping to, essentially, build a state and build a country. I think we have to do more in training both the Afghan Army and police.
We’ve made more progress on the Army side, less on the police side. And get the judiciary system to work more effectively. And probably most importantly, we have to get Pakistan’s cooperation in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) and along the borders of Pakistan of Afghanistan where Al Qaida and the Taliban are still setting up safe havens and training folks and engaging in incursions. So all those things matter. And there’s also probably room for more effective coordination between NATO forces and a greater unity of command.
But in the absence of some additional U.S. troops, I think we’re going to continue to see our policy drift. Now, obviously it is tough to get more troops in Afghanistan so long as we’ve got the number of brigades deployed in Iraq that we do. This fits with my larger strategic belief that a phased withdrawal in Iraq, where we hand over more responsibility to the Iraqi government, push them harder on political reconciliation, expect more from them in terms of spending their money on reconstruction in Iraq, all can facilitate a greater focus on Afghanistan.
I’ve said in the past the work that our troops have done in Iraq is extraordinary. Violence is down. (Iraq) Prime Minister (Nouri) al-Maliki has signaled a greater interest in taking on responsibility, and the assessment I got from commanders there is that although Iraqi forces still need support, they are increasingly taking the lead. In those circumstances, for us to begin a careful, phased withdrawal, starting with those areas that we have clearly secured the area, and then eventually moving to those areas that are still posing problems, that is how we’re going to free up the kinds of troops we need in Afghanistan.
Q: Is that an acknowledgement then that the surge strategy in Iraq worked?
A: Here’s my view, because I know there has been a lot of back on forth on this. I’ve consistently said that our troops have done a magnificent job and they have contributed greatly to the reduction in violence.
My opposition to the surge has always been based on a larger strategic concern, which is, if you recall, the debate during the surge had to do with whether or not we were going to double down on an indefinite occupation of Iraq, or we were going to start putting more pressure on the Iraqi government to achieve political aims, or political reconciliation. I continue to believe that an open-ended commitment to Iraq is a mistake. Given that the surge was couched in the language of an open-ended commitment, I would have continued to oppose such an open-ended commitment.
We weren’t presented with the choice, “Let’s start with a surge with a plan for a timetable for withdrawal.” That wasn’t the choice that was presented to us. But that doesn’t detract from the heroic work that our troops have performed. And there is no doubt that because of their work, along with the awakening among Sunni tribal leaders and the Shiite militias standing down, that we have achieved an environment in which the Iraqi government, I think, can start stepping up to the plate.
Q: You’ve talked about a drawdown. I don’t know how you envision the long-term presence in Iraq. When you talk drawdown, are you talking eventually no troops in Iraq, or are you thinking something like Germany and Korea?
A: What I’ve said is that we need a residual force to start with. So, without putting a precise number or a precise time frame, I’ve set a series of missions that we’re going to have to continue to perform for a decent stretch of time.
We’re going to have to continue to provide logistical and intelligence support to the Iraqi military. We’re going to have to continue to provide training to the Iraqi military. We are going to have to continue to protect our diplomatic forces, our civilians on the ground in Iraq. Our embassy, we’ve got to protect. And, I believe we’re going to have to continue to have a counter-terrorism strike force, if not directly inside of Iraq then certainly in the region, that can provide insurance against any resurgence of either Al Qaida activity inside of Iraq or serious, destabilizing violence inside of Iraq.
Those are all tasks that we’re still going to have to perform, and that means a certain number of troops. What those troops would be to accomplish those missions, I would leave up to the commanders, or I would at least consult closely with commanders in order to achieve the goals.
Q: The other big issue in the region is Iran. You spoke about that earlier today. Is there a military role in that that you see, or is it all a diplomatic role?
A: I think, I’ve said before that we never take military options off the table. And Iran poses a grave threat to the region. One of the constant refrains during my travels in the Middle East, not just from the Israelis but from a number of Arab observers as well, is that Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon would be a game-changer. It would probably trigger a nuclear arms race in the region. At the very least, it would change the balance of power so significantly that Iran would be much more aggressive in some of its activities like supporting Hezbollah and Hamas.
So we need to prevent Iran from possessing a nuclear weapon. I believe our strongest tools at the outset have to be strong diplomacy, big carrots and big sticks that can change their calculus. We’ve tended to have vague carrots and inadequate sticks in dealing with them. So they just keep on blowing through red lines that this administration has set. If we’re serious, then we’re going to have to mobilize the international community, and I think reaching out to Russia and China more than we’re doing is going to be real important.
Q: How effective do you think that will be? There have been efforts to reach out to them that have been unsuccessful.
A: Part of what we have to do is look at our broad, strategic relationship with the Russians and the Chinese and prioritize what are the issues that are most important in our relations with those two countries. I think that Iran ranks as high as anything. We have to listen carefully to determine what are their interests in order to secure their support.
Q: I wanted to talk to you about stop-loss; It’s been an issue for a lot of our readers. Where do you stand on the use of stop loss?
I believe that we should stop the policy of stop loss. Every troop that I met during my recent visit, even those that have been on four or five deployments, take enormous pride in their work. Morale was extraordinary. They understand that the sacrifices they’re making are on behalf of our nation. Their families, despite being under enormous stress, are willing to bear that burden.
But giving people predictability in their deployments, I think, is absolutely critical. When you have policies that essentially renege on the deal that’s been made, or you signal the people after they’ve been deployed, “You know what? We’re going to stay an extra three months.” Or an extra five months, because of inadequate planning by our civilian leadership.
That hurts morale, that hurts recruitment. That’s one of the reasons why I’m in favor of increasing our ground forces: 65,000 for our Army, 27,000 for our Marines. That can help relieve some of this pressure. I think it’s also important that we return our National Guard and reserve to its traditional mission, which is primarily one of homeland security.
Our National Guardsmen and reservists take enormous pride in the work they’ve done. But we have put an enormous burden on them. Our National Guards here back home are not adequately trained to meet a potential catastrophe here in the United States. We saw that during Katrina. We saw some evidence of that during the tornadoes in Kansas. There are a whole bunch of units all across the country that essentially have left all their equipment behind, back in Iraq. So there’s going to be an important reset function for the next administration.
All of those things, I think, are going to require a long-term strategy. It’s not going to be solved overnight. But we have to set out some very clear goals in terms of the directions that we’re moving.
Please see Stars and Stripes online for the complete interview transcript at:
By Leo Shane III, Stars and Stripes
Used with permission from Stars and Stripes.
© 2008 Stars and Stripes
WASHINGTON — Republican Sen. John McCain hates stop loss, worries about the number of departing non-commissioned officers and expects more U.S. troops in Afghanistan in the near future.
In an Aug. 2 interview with Stars and Stripes on Aug 2, the presidential candidate praised troops serving overseas, calling the current military “the best we’ve ever had.”
But he also warned that he expects continued strain on the military in coming years, including increased U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan and continued irregular warfare against terrorist groups that pose a threat to national security.
Here is a partial transcript from the interview:
Question: I wanted to start in Afghanistan, because there has been a lot of attention there lately. You’ve talked about sending three combat brigades there, to amp up some of the efforts, but this week Secretary (of Defense Robert) Gates said there are still no plans to increase troop levels there. So, I don’t know if you think we should be increasing those numbers right now, and I don’t know how you plan on getting those extra troops there, where they’re going to come from.
Sen. McCain: First of all, some of them should come from our allies. I’m pleased that the French have committed to increasing their commitment there. I’m hopeful that others of our allies will make similar commitments. But we’re going to have to increase our troop presence.
A lot of that will probably come when we draw down in Iraq. And we are drawing down, and we are succeeding, and we are winning. So a lot of them will be there. Plus, we are increasing the size of the military, and we are going to have to continue that effort.
But let me emphasize: we know what a winning strategy is now. We used it in Iraq, and that strategy will be successful in Afghanistan. My opponent, interestingly, opposed the strategy in Iraq yet basically wants to, whether he realizes it or not, wants to have that strategy, which he said failed in Iraq, in Afghanistan.
Q: Is something like the surge for Afghanistan, though, something that we can wait on? You said when troops draw down in Iraq, that maybe …
I’m confident that as president, with the joint chiefs and with others, and input from our allies, and working with our military leadership, we will be able to address this challenge. It’s very difficult, very complex, but fundamentally the same strategy that we’re using in Iraq will win.
Q: Speaking of Iraq, I don’t know how you picture Iraq going into the future. I don’t know how long you think we’ll have troops there, and if some day it will be like Germany or Korea, like all of our readers are used to: a semi-permanent, long-term force.
A: I think that’s going to be the result of negotiations between the United States and Iraq. There are two examples in the Middle East. One is Saudi Arabia: They didn’t want us to stay, so we left. The other is Kuwait. They asked us to remain there in a security arrangement, and that arrangement has been very helpful, particularly in, among other things, supporting our effort in Iraq.
So I think that will be a subject of negotiations between two sovereign nations. But the important thing is that we have succeeded. If we have been driven out, we would have, in my view, been at a very great risk of a war in returning. So the important thing is that the future is now one where we have different options.
Before we started the surge, we were losing the war. We were losing, and we were going to leave in defeat. And that would have been catastrophic for the United States’ national security, both in Iraq, the region and Afghanistan. So we will work out, I’m sure, those arrangements with the Iraqi government.
Every life is precious. Every wound is grievous. And we mourn for any life that is sacrificed. But the fact is the month of July was the lowest number of casualties since the war began. It wasn’t an accident. It was bought at great sacrifice of American blood and treasure.
We cannot, cannot lose those gains which we have made at such great sacrifice by embarking on what (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs) Adm. (Michael) Mullen has said is “a very dangerous course of action” which is still advocated by Sen. (Barack) Obama: dates for withdrawal. We’ve seen by the massive suicide bombings that al-Qaida and other jihadists are still capable of doing some very bad things.
Q: Speaking of national security, looking ahead at Iran, I don’t know if you see a clear military role there, or is there just a diplomatic role in dealing with them going ahead?
A: Well, the first thing that’s vitally important is success in Iraq. If we had been defeated, the Iranian influence would have been dramatically increased, not only in Iraq but in the region.
The second thing is, I think it’s a series of steps that have to be taken, beginning with efforts to impose sanctions that would affect Iranian efforts, beneficially effect, Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. They do pose a threat in the region. They have announced their dedication to “wiping Israel off the map.” And we need to act with our friends and allies.
I’m sorry for this long answer, but (French) President (Nicholas) Sarkozy, (German) Chancellor (Angela) Merkel, (British) Prime Minister Gordon Brown and others have said they will join with us in trying to bring financial, diplomatic and other pressures on Iran so they will modify their behavior.
But let me just summarize and say we can never allow a second Holocaust.
Q: Do you have any concerns, though, about what you’ve seen in Afghanistan with the, I don’t want to say wavering, but difficulty in getting other countries to pull their share. Going ahead, will you have the same “gotta keep reminding Germany, gotta keep reminding France” that we have a united front against that?
Obviously, we have to work closely, but when president Bush met with President Sarkozy, President Sarkozy’s words were far more emphatic than president Bush’s were.
We all know that it’s Russia and China, but especially Russia, that are blocking security council actions on sanctions. So we should and must join with our allies that have the ability to bring enormous pressure on Iran to try to deter them from the course of acquiring nuclear weapons.
I’m pleased with cooperation and commitment we’re getting, especially from our European allies.
Q: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the GI bill. You didn’t cast a vote on the final version of the supplemental bill that had the GI bill in there. How do you feel about the final product that came out? Because you were opposed to Sen. Webb’s bill as written before the modifications there. I don’t know how you feel about the final product.
A: The modifications, in my view, were vitally necessary. There were different studies that showed there would be a decrease in retention. The heart and soul of the military is the non-commissioned officer. And we need to have incentives for people to remain in the military.
And now that we have the provision that, after a period of time, that the servicemember can pass on to their spouse and family members educational benefits, I think that was vital. So I was very active in insisting, along with (Sens.) Lindsey Graham and John Warner and others to insist that we give them the ability, after a certain period of time, to transfer those educational benefits to family members.
I talk to people in the military all the time. I see them all the time. They write me, they email me, and they tell me “I want to have the ability to have my spouse and/or children have these educational benefits, because one of my greatest fears about staying in is being able to afford education for them.”
So I’m glad that I and others stood up to what was a virtual tidal wave of passing this legislation without having one of the most important provisions, in my view: that’s the ability to pass on educational benefits. Not only because they needed it, but also as an incentive to retention. We’ve got to keep highly qualified professionals in the military for as long as we can.
Again, I stood up not for what was popular but what I know is right. It was used by my political opponents to beat up on me very badly. It would have been very easy for me to say, “Fine, I’ll sign on to this.” My first obligation is to the men and women in the military and the military, so that we can retain these high-qualified, highly-trained, highly-experienced individuals.
One of the things I’m most proud of is that I’ve stood up for the men and women in the military, whether it be support for the surge, when even Republicans didn’t support it, and standing up to the point where people said my campaign is dead because I wanted 30,000 additional troops there. Because I’ll always do what’s right for my country first.
I believe this provision concerning educational benefits was vital, was a vital element.
Q: But do you feel like it’s enough to offset the other end, where you did have concerns and they do have more generous benefits with the guaranteed four years.
Look – if I’d have written the bill exactly I’d have written it somewhat different. But I thought we needed to improve educational benefits and we also needed to provide incentives for retention in the military.
I know that your readers are very well aware of what it requires nowadays in terms of training and experience, to have the most professional military we’ve ever had. That means you’ve got to keep a certain percentage of the very best if you’re going to keep the quality of the military what it is.
I might have written some provisions of it differently. But the point is I think we know have a bill that is good for the men and women in the military.
Please see Stars and Stripes online for the complete interview transcript at: