U.S. Senator John McCain has identified Kandahar as key to the West's efforts to win the war in Afghanistan and predicted an upsurge in casualties as NATO and Taliban forces intensify their struggle for control there.
Visiting the southern city on Monday (July 5), McCain -- the ranking Republican on the U.S. Senate's Armed Services Committee -- said the U.S.-led NATO forces would prevail in the overall conflict if they secured Kandahar.
"The Taliban know that Kandahar is the key to success or failure, so what happens in this operation will have a great effect on the outcome of this conflict," McCain said.
Despite rising casualties among allied forces, McCain expressed confidence that the NATO military operation would succeed.
"I'm convinced we can succeed and will succeed in Kandahar. It's obviously the key area and if we succeed there, we will succeed in the rest of this struggle," McCain said.
Criticizes Withdrawal Pledge
But he tempered his upbeat message by criticizing President Barack Obama -- who defeated him in the 2008 U.S. presidential election -- for pledging to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in July next year.
Although he expected progress to be made by next July, McCain said the withdrawal pledge provided the Taliban with motivation to wait out the NATO presence.
"We must not tell the enemy that we will begin leaving when we have not finished the job," he said.
McCain's criticisms were rebutted by Vice President Joe Biden, who told MSNBC television during a trip to Iraq that the administration's strategy was aimed at putting responsibility on the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to "get in the game" by training its own forces.
"You have got to get in the game. We're not here forever," Biden said. "We cannot want the security of your country more than you want it."
Changes Under Petraeus
McCain was speaking during a two-day visit to Afghanistan -- accompanied by Senators Lindsey Graham (Republican, South Carolina) and Joseph Lieberman (Independent, Connecticut), who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee -- that included a meeting with the newly installed NATO forces commander, General David Petraeus.
Petraeus's appointment -- in place of General Stanley McChrystal, sacked last month over critical comments about administration officials in a magazine interview -- would lead to changes in the rules of engagement, McCain predicted.
"Probably there will be some tweaking," McCain said. "We get that impression from him."
That remark referred to complaints among troops that McChrystal's "courageous restraint" rule, aimed at minimizing civilian casualties, prevents them from properly defending themselves.
The rules don't prevent U.S. troops from calling in air support but the emphasis is on caution, leading some officers to fear career damage if they mistakenly call for air or heavy-weapons support and kill civilians in the process.
Commanders have complained that the rules have contributed to a rise in troop casualties, citing the increasing number of NATO personnel being killed. A total of 103 foreign soldiers -- including 60 Americans -- died in June, almost triple the May toll and making it the bloodiest month of the war for international forces, according to AP.
Meanwhile, NATO said five U.S. service members were killed on Monday (July 5) by roadside bombs -- two in the west, two in the south, and one in the east. No other details were immediately disclosed.
Also on Monday, a British soldier was killed in a blast during a vehicle patrol in southern Helmand Province, the British Defense Ministry said.
Their deaths brought to 14 the number of U.S. and other international troops killed so far this month.
with material from RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, agencies