McCain Says Steele's Comments on Afghanistan War Are `Wildly Inaccurate'

Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele’s recent comments suggesting that the U.S. will lose the war in Afghanistan are “wildly inaccurate.”

Steele, who said at a Republican fund-raising event July 1 that the conflict in Afghanistan “was a war of Obama’s choosing” and not something that the U.S. had actively prosecuted, should reconsider whether he can be an effective party leader, McCain said on ABC’s “This Week” program. Since Steele’s remarks, conservative Republican leaders including writer William Kristol and Liz Cheney have demanded his resignation.

“There’s no excuse” for the remarks, said McCain. “We need to get everybody behind this effort, because it’s America’s war. It’s not Bush’s war, it’s not Obama’s war, it’s America’s war, and we can’t afford to fail.”

McCain spoke yesterday from Afghanistan, where he, independent Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina were spending the July 4 holiday. Graham, speaking from Kabul on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program, said he was “dismayed, angry, upset” over Steele’s comments.

Untimely Comments

“It was an uninformed, unnecessary, unwise, untimely comment,” he said. Graham declined to demand Steele’s resignation, saying he will leave the matter to the Republican National Committee. Graham also said his party needs to support President Barack Obama’s commitment to winning the Afghan conflict and that a victory over the militant Islamic Taliban is “imperative.”

Steele clarified his July 1 remarks July 2 by saying, “The stakes are too high for us to accept anything but success in Afghanistan.” In the same statement he said that “for the sake of the security of the free world, our country must give our troops the support necessary to win this war.”

Graham said yesterday “the good news is Michael Steele is backtracking so fast he’s going to be in Kabul fighting here pretty soon.”

“It’s up to him to see if he can lead the Republican Party after this comment,” Graham said. “We’ll see if he can get it behind him.”

November Elections

With nationwide unemployment at 9.5 percent in June, Republicans are trying to regain control of Congress from Democrats in November’s midterm elections. They are contending with intra-party challenges from candidates supported by Tea Party activists who promote limited government.

Senator Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican and Tea Party supporter, said on “Fox News Sunday” that Steele needs to apologize to the military for his remarks and to “refocus on electing candidates who can stop this rampage of spending and debt in Washington.”

McCain said that Obama’s July 2011 deadline for beginning to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan sounds an “uncertain trumpet” for allies questioning the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan. McCain endorsed what he called General David Petraeus’s “conditions-based” approach to determining how a U.S. withdrawal would be accomplished.

“People in the region are not sure about whether we are going to be here after the middle of 2011,” said McCain, who also spoke from Kabul. McCain also said that for all the challenges faced in the Afghan war, now in its ninth year, the situation isn’t as bad as it was in Iraq in 2006, before a surge in U.S. troops there helped stabilize security, heading off a potential civil war.

Withdrawal Deadline

U.S. Representative Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who served two tours as a Marine in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, echoed McCain’s concern over the withdrawal date.

“I think it’s going to be tough,” said Hunter, who was in Afghanistan in late May, on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “I don’t think we can do it in a year.”

Lieberman said on “Fox News Sunday” that the current rules of engagement in Afghanistan “have hurt morale” and that Petraeus will review them “as soon as possible.”

Petraeus told Congress last week that he’s concerned the current rules, which curtail the use of lethal force to curb civilian casualties, are too restrictive and are putting American forces at risk.

Afghan Strategy

The U.S. will reassess its Afghanistan strategy in December and is trying to train enough Afghan soldiers and police to allow a withdrawal of U.S. troops there beginning in July 2011. President Barack Obama last year authorized the deployment of 30,000 additional troops in an effort to halt a resurgence of the Taliban that has increased U.S. and allied combat deaths to the fastest pace of the nine-year war, the longest in American history.

Petraeus, who assumed command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan last week, yesterday promised to personnel in the country a “unity of effort” with diplomatic and Afghan partners in a “comprehensive, civil-military counterinsurgency campaign.”

“I pledge my total commitment to our mission as we work together to help achieve a brighter future for a new country in an ancient land,” he wrote in a letter addressed to NATO civilian and military personnel. In a hand-written note at the bottom of the letter, he wrote, “It is a privilege to serve with you.”

Petraeus replaces General Stanley McChrystal, who was removed from the war command by Obama last month for disparaging comments about the administration made in a Rolling Stone magazine interview.

“People are very disappointed that General McChrystal left. He was beloved by the troops,” Graham said on CBS. “But General Petraeus has hit the ground running. He’s a hero among the troops. He knows the region better than any person that I’ve ever met.”

The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan began after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S. by al-Qaeda, which had been harbored by the militant Islamic Taliban that then controlled the country.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Bjerga in Washington at abjerga@bloomberg.net

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