Washington — Barry Goldwater’s snapshots of scenic Arizona dot the walls of his private office, but Sen. John McCain pays them little attention. “Here,” he says, gesturing toward a picture of his children. “This is my son Jack. He is serving in the Navy. And this is my son Jimmy, who’s a Marine.” He pauses for a moment, gazing at the spread of family photos perched atop his desk. “I am proud of them all,” he beams, his hand resting upon a frame.
For McCain, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, the war in Afghanistan is a mission to which he remains deeply committed — personally, policy-wise, and politically. On Independence Day, he led a congressional delegation to Kabul, just as Gen. David Petraeus assumed command of the nearly nine-year-old campaign. “It is a tough situation,” McCain declares, settling into his chair. Soon, he tells us, the military will be moving into Kandahar, a Taliban-dominated province. “Obviously, it is going to be difficult, but we certainly can succeed.”
“There are a lot of complexities in this challenge, but there were many in Iraq as well,” McCain says. “From our side, I have concerns about the civil-military relationship. That was a key ingredient to our success in Iraq.” He sees the past working relationship between ambassador Ryan Crocker and Petraeus in Iraq as the model for Afghanistan. Though “reluctant” to comment on whether President Obama should oust the U.S.’s current civilian leadership team in the region — special envoy Richard Holbrooke and ambassador Karl Eikenberry — McCain’s brow furrows when he delves into the inside-baseball talk of civil-military cooperation.
“The good news is that Petraeus comes with a reputation of the highest order, so that gives him influence over events which no ordinary person would have,” McCain explains. “The bad news is that there is a lot of work to be done on the civilian-military side, which was just not the case in Iraq. In Iraq, Petraeus and Crocker were joined at the hip. Now, Petraeus has got his work cut out for him.” Petraeus, for his part, has pledged a “unity of effort” on the civil-military front and has called Holbrooke his “wing man.”
“I think the relationship has got to be — whoever the ambassador is and whoever the special envoy is — they have got to work in close coordination with one another and have a good relationship with Hamid Karzai,” the president of Afghanistan, McCain continues. “Whether that is possible with the president’s team is a subject that needs to be explored. I am very concerned about the relationship.”
To foster success, McCain adds, President Obama must also take care to not sound flippant when speaking about withdrawal. Last week, Obama said he would not switch “off the lights” and close “the door behind us” come July 2011, the potential drawdown date he set last year. Obama’s lights-off rhetoric irks McCain. “Switch off the lights?” he asks, leaning forward. “What does that mean? Are you going to dim the lights? It’s just one of the most bizarre statements that I have ever heard a commander-in-chief make, and I’m disappointed by it.”
McCain reckons that Obama is “trying to have it both ways” on Afghanistan. “He is trying to placate the Left, telling them we’re leaving, then he tells our friends and allies something a bit different, but he will not even use the term ‘conditions-based.’ It’s bewildering. These young people are out there doing these incredible things and the president will not say whether his decision will be conditions-based? That’s indecipherable. The Taliban and the people in the region, our friends and enemies, they don’t get the nuances. They’re getting a mixed message.”
Despite Michael Steele, the GOP chairman, calling Afghanistan “a war of Obama’s choosing,” Republicans must be vigilant in supporting the war, the senator insists. “The role of the GOP has got to be that if we see a situation evolving where our friends are discouraged and our enemies encouraged, then we have to paint this situation in the strongest terms possible. That’s what I’ve been trying to do.”
“The fundamental object of war is to break the enemy’s will to fight,” McCain asserts. “If you tell the enemy that we will only try to break your will for a year, the conclusion your enemy draws is obvious.” With 93,000 U.S. troops counting on Washington’s support, McCain believes that the responsibility of keeping the flame of the Afghan mission alive could soon fall into GOP hands.
“The Taliban look at us and say you’ve got the watches and we’ve got the time,” McCain sighs. “You can’t have it both ways when it comes to war in politics. That’s the serious, fundamental error that this president is making.”
– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.