Fighting talk is self-defeating

John McCain talks a lot about victory. But his personal experience of military action encompasses only defeat. McCain's war was Vietnam, where he served courageously as a US navy pilot. Even so, he spent most of his time there in a prisoner of war camp. And as the world well knows, America's south-east Asian adventure ended in calamity.

A generation or two later, the lessons of history stubbornly unlearnt, the US is drifting into another Asian quagmire, this time in Afghanistan. Like Vietnam, the conflict is ideological – confronting communism then, confronting radical Salafi or Wahhabi Islam now.

This latest American war is also being fought asymmetrically; that is to say, highly-trained troops using the very latest military technology against highly-motivated irregular guerrilla bands. The US is propping up an ineffective and corrupt regime in Kabul, as was once the case in Saigon.

Washington and its Nato allies are likewise steadily losing the "hearts and minds" campaign, in part because of their continuing failure, since 2001, to improve the miserable lot of most Afghans; and in part because of the coalition's propensity for inadvertently killing and maiming civilians as they pursue the Taliban and al-Qaida.

The parallels, obviously inexact, could be extended. The Afghan war, for example, is now spreading into a neighbouring country, destabilising its government and radicalising its population. Think Cambodia and you may gain an insight into what awaits Pakistan if current trends continue unchecked.

But the point at this particular moment in time is political, not historical or military. Either the Republican McCain or his Democratic rival, Barack Obama, will take charge of the White House come January. Responsibility for this developing crisis will soon be theirs.

Both men have repeatedly stated their intention to sharply increase US troop levels in Afghanistan – despite warnings from Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and General David McKiernan, the US in-country commander, among others, that negotiation, not escalation, will ultimately halt the violence.

In a recent Washington press conference, McKiernan said additional troops were not the sole solution. Greater international investment in reconstruction, more training of the Afghan army and police, and greater emphasis on good governance were needed. "This will not ultimately be a military outcome. [We] will not run out of bad people in Afghanistan. It will ultimately be a political solution."

All the same, Obama continues to stress his willingness to send troops into sovereign Pakistani territory in pursuit of the enemy, despite much evidence that such imperious tactics are undermining the US anti-terror alliance with Islamabad. It's when Obama strays into sensitive areas such as these that the charge that he is dangerously inexperienced gains traction. On the other hand, McCain is clearly prepared to take similar action inside Pakistan. He just doesn't talk about it.

A published leak yesterday said the Afghan policy review ordered by the Bush administration has concluded that Afghanistan is in a "downward spiral" and that the government of President Hamid Karzai is failing. This is only what British officials and generals have been saying for some time.

Both Obama and McCain need to acknowledge the seriousness of this situation, stop using Afghanistan as a campaign prop to prove how tough they are, and address themselves seriously to the question of exactly what the Nato alliance is trying to achieve there, and whether it has a realistic chance of securing its aims. The alternative is a thoughtless, reckless drift into a potentially bigger conflict than Iraq.

Speaking of which, McCain's daily pledges to achieve victory there also require greater critical scrutiny than they are currently receiving. On Iraq, Obama appears more realistic. Even so, his plan to bring most troops home by mid-2010 looks ambitious. Iraq's sectarian truce may not hold much longer, key issues of land and oil remain unresolved, and Iran continues to exert unhelpful influence.

McCain on the other hand seems to think the US can carry on indefinitely in Iraq while simultaneously escalating in Afghanistan. He refuses to set a timeline or endpoint for the occupation. Instead, in this week's presidential debate, he repeated his claim that "Senator Obama would have brought our troops home in defeat. I will bring them home in victory and in honour." That was both cheap and puzzling.

"We still do not know what McCain means with talk about some kind of magical "victory" in Iraq," the New York Times said in an editorial on Wednesday. "Even American military commanders acknowledge that recent security gains are fragile. And there is no near-term expectation that Iraq can be the kind of stable democracy that Bush and McCain had envisioned."

McCain's gung-ho campaign statements about Iraq are misleading at best and mendacious at worst. But they seem to be having an effect on some of his more gullible followers. In a recent CBS interview, his neophyte running mate, the demon winker Sarah Palin, duly parroted the "victory" line. "A surge in Afghanistan also will lead us to victory there as it has proven to have done in Iraq," Palin said. "We cannot afford to retreat, to withdraw in Iraq."

It's likely most American voters see such statements for what they are. The more McCain trumpets all-out victory, the more he looks like a loser.

Simon Tisdall