Vying to be the next US commander in chief, Democrat Barack Obama adopted a tough line yesterday, vowing to strike at militants hiding in Afghanistan and Pakistan as John McCain said the US was winning in Iraq. Striking a sombre air, Mr Obama sought to steal Mr McCain's thunder by promising to launch military strikes on extremist targets inside Pakistan if the Islamabad government is unwilling or unable to act.
"If the United States has al Qa'eda, [Osama] bin Laden, top-level lieutenants in our sights, and Pakistan is unwilling or unable to act, then we should take them out," he told the first presidential clash of the 2008 White House race. Tensions have risen between allies Islamabad and Washington since a Sept 3 ground attack by US forces inside Pakistan, the first of its kind since 2001, left about 15 people dead. And Mr Obama, 47, earned a rebuke from the 72-year-old Mr McCain, a veteran of the Vietnam War, who said such threats were unhelpful in a wider strategy, adding: "You don't say that out loud". In the first of three presidential debates ahead of the Nov 4 elections, the two men laid out radically opposed visions of how to protect America from another terror attack such as the September 11 2001 strikes. Mr Obama insisted the US administration "took our eye off the ball" by diverting military resources away from Afghanistan to Iraq. Despite enormous amounts of money, and energy as well as the lives lost, al Qa'eda leader "bin Laden is still out there. He is not captured, he is not killed. Al Qa'eda is resurgent," Mr Obama said. The first-term Illinois senator, who has come under attack by Republicans for his lack of experience, repeated his favoured strategy ? to take US troops from Iraq and send them to Afghanistan to deal with the resurgent Taliban and al Qa'eda forces there. "Al Qa'eda and Taliban [are] crossing the border and attacking our troops in a brazen fashion. They are feeling emboldened," Mr Obama said. "We cannot separate Afghanistan from Iraq because what our commanders have said is we don't have the troops right now to deal with Afghanistan." But Mr McCain argued the "surge" of some 30,000 extra forces that he advocated for in Iraq had "succeeded and we are winning in Iraq and we will come home with victory and honour." And he called for a "new strategy" against al Qa'eda in Afghanistan. "We're going to have to help the Pakistanis go into these areas and obtain the allegiance of the people. It's going to be tough," said the Arizona senator. Mr McCain also questioned whether his Democratic rival was really up to the job of steering the world's superpower as it tackles wars in two countries. "I've been involved, as I mentioned before, in virtually every major national security challenge we faced in the last 20 some years," Mr McCain argued. "There are some advantages to experience and knowledge and judgment. I honestly don't believe that Senator Obama has the knowledge or experience, and has made the wrong judgments in a number of areas, including his initial reaction to Russian aggression in Georgia." He told the moderator, veteran journalist Jim Lehrer, that although he believed the threat of another 9/11 attack was less than in the past, "we still have a long way to go before we can declare America safe." Mr Obama agreed, adding: "The biggest threat we face right now is not a nuclear missile coming over the sky it's a suitcase" warning about the dangers of nuclear proliferation and chemical attacks. And he said one of the biggest challenges to keeping America safe was to improve its reputation, shattered by the Iraq war. "The ideals and values of the United States inspired the entire world. I don't think any of us can say our standing in the world now, the way children around the world look at the United States now, is the same." * AFP