SEE UPDATE BELOW
John McCain likes to paint Barack Obama as a naive follower on key national security issues. But by moving up his planned Afghanistan speech by two days to follow Obama's, and by agreeing that more U.S. troops are needed there, McCain appears to be following the Illinois Democrat on a major proposed shift for U.S. foreign policy.
Last month, Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Michael Mullen said he needed at least three brigades shifted to Afghanistan, but that "troop constraints were preventing such a move."
Democrats trumpeted the statement as vindication, but McCain's campaign held its line and "resisted calls for more [U.S.] troops" in Afghanistan.
Indeed, in a policy paper published by Foreign Affairs last fall, McCain argued that any increase of forces in Afghanistan should be comprised of NATO troops instead of U.S. military personnel:
"Our recommitment to Afghanistan must include increasing NATO forces, suspending the debilitating restrictions on when and how those forces can fight, expanding the training and equipping of the Afghan National Army through a long-term partnership with NATO to make it more professional and multiethnic, and deploying significantly more foreign police trainers. It must also address the current political deficiencies in judicial reform, reconstruction, governance, and anticorruption efforts."
According to the Boston Globe, that was a position the McCain campaign repeated last week:
But McCain's advisers say that if he becomes president he would build on President Bush's decision to rely on NATO forces - which now have about 20,000 troops in Afghanistan - and would prod Pakistan to take on Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters camped inside its borders.
"There is no easy answer, but clearly Pakistan needs to do more to crack down there," said [McCain senior foreign policy adviser Randy] Scheunemann.
Flash-forward to today. As the AP reported, McCain was set to discuss the economy, with an address on Afghanistan scheduled for Thursday. But the campaign ditched its planned focus on jobs (although not its banner) to follow Obama's lead -- not only by talking about national security but by joining him in calling for more American troops in Afghanistan.
Nearly an hour after Obama finished his D.C. speech, in which he repeated his call for "at least two additional combat brigades" to be sent to Afghanistan, McCain stepped to his podium across the country in New Mexico and tried to one-up his Democratic rival. As McCain's website now says, the Arizona Republican wants "at least three additional brigades" for the fight in Afghanistan.
But if Adm. Mullen can't find the troops to provide for a three-brigade increase in Afghanistan, how does McCain (who, unlike Obama, doesn't have plans to begin removing forces from Iraq)?
And what has happened in the last few days to provoke McCain to shift his months-long opposition to sending more U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan?
MSNBC's First Read team reports that McCain tried to clear up confusion over whether his three new brigades for Afghanistan would be made up by U.S. troops or those from NATO.
But speaking to reporters on his bus after today's speech, McCain indicated that he'd be open to those additional troops coming from NATO.
Still, being "open" to the additional forces coming from NATO is not the same as rejecting the idea of sending more U.S. troops.
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