McCain wants surge in Afghanistan, but with what troops?

John McCain can't seem to find a consistent position on adding troops, and with good reason -- given his plan for Iraq, sufficient U.S. forces would not be available.

Published July 16, 2008 3:03PM (EDT)

On Tuesday, John McCain announced what amounted to a major flip-flop in his position on Afghanistan.

During a speech in New Mexico, McCain said, "Our commanders in Afghanistan say that they need at least three additional brigades. Thanks to the success of the surge, these forces are becoming available, and our commanders in Afghanistan must get them." But as my friend Steve Benen points out, as recently as last week McCain advisors were saying he still opposed adding troops in Afghanistan. In fact, as Salon's Mark Benjamin noted in a post in this space on Tuesday, McCain has adopted something that seems remarkably similar to Barack Obama's position.

Here's the problem with McCain's version, though: Whereas Obama says he'd begin withdrawing combat troops from Iraq once he's inaugurated, McCain has no such intention. That means that even with the end of the surge in Iraq, there would be no troops available for a surge in Afghanistan.

Slate's Fred Kaplan did a good job of explaining this back in May, writing in one column:

There is no way to put more boots in Afghanistan without taking boots out of Iraq. As one senior Army officer put it to me, having it both ways is, "in a word, impossible," and anyone who thinks otherwise, he added, is "dreaming ..."

One might wonder: Couldn't the Army just stage another surge? Here's the thing, and this hasn't been well-understood: The surge was always something of an artifice. The term suggests gathering up a bunch of extra troops -- in this case, five brigades' worth -- and hurling them into Iraq. In fact, there were no extra troops. The surge involved accelerating the departure of brigades already scheduled to go to Iraq -- and then keeping them there for 15 months instead of the customary 12. The Army had more troops on the ground, but only because the troops were there for a longer period of time.

Also, as I've explained before, the decision to end the surge isn't really the choice it has been portrayed as; it's a necessity, borne of the simple fact that the military is stretched near the breaking point already.

And, as Josh Marshall reminded his readers on Tuesday, earlier this month Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters, "I don't have troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach to send into Afghanistan, until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq."

All this might explain why McCain and his campaign had to refine the senator's position on Afghanistan twice more before Tuesday was out. First, on his campaign bus following his speech, McCain was asked whether the troops he was calling for would come from the U.S. or from NATO. He responded, "We need to work that out. We need to have greater participation on the part of our NATO allies, as I said in my opening remarks today, and we need a lot more help." Later, a spokeswoman for McCain said U.S. troops would be part of the additional forces dispatched to Afghanistan, but that not all of those forces would come from the U.S. "Will we contribute? Of course we will," the spokeswoman said, according to the Washington Post.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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2008 Elections Afghanistan John Mccain R-ariz.