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Afghan drawdown may hurt battle for east: McCain

John McCain speaks as Joe Lieberman looks on during a news conference at the International Security Assistance Force headquarters in Kabul
John McCain speaks as Joe Lieberman looks on during a news conference at the International Security Assistance Force headquarters in Kabul

KABUL (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's decision to bring troops home from Afghanistan faster than the military recommended could jeopardize the next major push of the war, to unseat insurgents in the east, Senator John McCain said on Sunday.

McCain and fellow Republican Senator Lindsey Graham also said they he were concerned about Pakistani ties with insurgents fighting the Afghan government and its NATO-led allies.

Obama announced a plan in late June to begin withdrawing 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by year's end, followed by about 23,000 more by the end of next summer. The military distanced themselves from the timetable, telling Congress they had sought a slower, less risky drawdown.

"My major concern ... is the ability to move from the southern part of this country over to RC (regional command) East, and complete the job there," McCain told a news conference during a visit to the Afghan capital.

Extra U.S. troops ordered into Afghanistan by Obama in 2009 have mostly been fighting in the Taliban's southern heartland, where they have made some security gains, but the situation in the east of the country bordering Pakistan has deteriorated.

Insurgents tend to return to safe-havens in Pakistan in the winter, returning when they have cover from foliage and the weather is warmer for a spring and summer "fighting season."

Military leaders have focused on the south this year, but MaCain said they expected to shift attention to the east for next year's fighting season and might be pressed for troops.

"I believe that the planned drawdown is an unnecessary risk, and that is why there is no military leader that recommended it," McCain said.

PAKISTAN PROBLEMS

McCain said the role of ties between Afghan insurgents and Pakistan's main intelligence agency (ISI) needed to be acknowledged. Many Afghan insurgent groups find safe haven across the border, including the dangerous Haqqani network.

"We have to deal with Pakistan on a basis of realism, that there are connections between the ISI and the Haqqani network and the Taliban," he said.

Graham called for a stronger stance from Islamabad.

"Until Pakistan begins to help its going to be very difficult," he said, speaking on the day that Afghan intelligence reported that insurgents had bought a suicide bomber from Pakistani militants.

"Our job as members of the Senate is to tell the Pakistani military 'you need to chose who you want your friends to be and who you want your enemies to be'. We want to be your friends."

They were traveling with independent Senator Joe Lieberman, who said the group would warn Afghan President Hamid Karzai that he needed to tackle corruption and a long-running dispute over parliamentary elections, to hold onto U.S. support.

"One of the things we want to say to President Karzai when we meet him tonight is that back home in Congress there is a war weariness and a kind of fiscal stress," Lieberman said.

"President Karzai can make our job easier or harder -- to sustain support for the people of Afghanistan -- by what he says and does."

(Reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Alison Williams)

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