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By various estimates, there are about 1.5 million to 2 million American Muslim voters, including several hundred thousand Pakistanis, in the United States. There is a significant concentration of Muslim vote in Florida and Michigan. If, as the anecdotal evidence suggests, Obama gets the lion's share of the Muslim American vote, then he could win the presidency by a thin margin of Muslim votes.
Is an Obama win good for Muslim-Americans or Pakistani-Americans? To answer this question, let's look at the first debate between McCain and Obama. Pakistan and Afghanistan figured prominently in the US presidential debate 2008 between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. Here's the relevant transcript on the subject:
LEHRER: Afghanistan, lead — a new — a new lead question. Now, having resolved Iraq, we'll move to Afghanistan.
And it goes to you, Senator Obama, and it's a — it picks up on a point that's already been made. Do you think more troops — more U.S. troops should be sent to Afghanistan, how many, and when?
OBAMA: Yes, I think we need more troops. I've been saying that for over a year now.
And I think that we have to do it as quickly as possible, because it's been acknowledged by the commanders on the ground the situation is getting worse, not better.
We had the highest fatalities among U.S. troops this past year than at any time since 2002. And we are seeing a major offensive taking place — al Qaeda and Taliban crossing the border and attacking our troops in a brazen fashion. They are feeling emboldened.
And 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.
So I would send two to three additional brigades to Afghanistan. Now, keep in mind that we have four times the number of troops in Iraq, where nobody had anything to do with 9/11 before we went in, where, in fact, there was no al Qaeda before we went in, but we have four times more troops there than we do in Afghanistan.
And that is a strategic mistake, because every intelligence agency will acknowledge that al Qaeda is the greatest threat against the United States and that Secretary of Defense Gates acknowledged the central front — that the place where we have to deal with these folks is going to be in Afghanistan and in Pakistan.
So here's what we have to do comprehensively, though. It's not just more troops.
We have to press the Afghan government to make certain that they are actually working for their people. And I've said this to President Karzai.
No. 2, we've got to deal with a growing poppy trade that has exploded over the last several years.
No. 3, we've got to deal with Pakistan, because al Qaeda and the Taliban have safe havens in Pakistan, across the border in the northwest regions, and although, you know, under George Bush, with the support of Senator McCain, we've been giving them $10 billion over the last seven years, they have not done what needs to be done to get rid of those safe havens.
And until we do, Americans here at home are not going to be safe.
LEHRER: Afghanistan, Senator McCain?
MCCAIN: First of all, I won't repeat the mistake that I regret enormously, and that is, after we were able to help the Afghan freedom fighters and drive the Russians out of Afghanistan, we basically washed our hands of the region.
And the result over time was the Taliban, al Qaeda, and a lot of the difficulties we are facing today. So we can't ignore those lessons of history.
Now, on this issue of aiding Pakistan, if you're going to aim a gun at somebody, George Shultz, our great secretary of state, told me once, you'd better be prepared to pull the trigger.
I'm not prepared at this time to cut off aid to Pakistan. So I'm not prepared to threaten it, as Senator Obama apparently wants to do, as he has said that he would announce military strikes into Pakistan.
We've got to get the support of the people of — of Pakistan. He said that he would launch military strikes into Pakistan.
Now, you don't do that. You don't say that out loud. If you have to do things, you have to do things, and you work with the Pakistani government.
Now, the new president of Pakistan, Zardari, has got his hands full. And this area on the border has not been governed since the days of Alexander the Great.
I've been to Waziristan. I can see how tough that terrain is. It's ruled by a handful of tribes.
And, yes, Senator Obama calls for more troops, but what he doesn't understand, it's got to be a new strategy, the same strategy that he condemned in Iraq. It's going to have to be employed in Afghanistan.
And we're going to have to help the Pakistanis go into these areas and obtain the allegiance of the people. And it's going to be tough. They've intermarried with al Qaeda and the Taliban. And it's going to be tough. But we have to get the cooperation of the people in those areas.
And the Pakistanis are going to have to understand that that bombing in the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad was a signal from the terrorists that they don't want that government to cooperate with us in combating the Taliban and jihadist elements.
So we've got a lot of work to do in Afghanistan. But I'm confident, now that General Petraeus is in the new position of command, that we will employ a strategy which not only means additional troops — and, by the way, there have been 20,000 additional troops, from 32,000 to 53,000, and there needs to be more.
So it's not just the addition of troops that matters. It's a strategy that will succeed. And Pakistan is a very important element in this. And I know how to work with him. And I guarantee you I would not publicly state that I'm going to attack them.
OBAMA: Nobody talked about attacking Pakistan. Here's what I said.
And if John wants to disagree with this, he can let me know, that, if the United States has al Qaeda, bin Laden, top-level lieutenants in our sights, and Pakistan is unable or unwilling to act, then we should take them out.
Now, I think that's the right strategy; I think that's the right policy.
And, John, I — you're absolutely right that presidents have to be prudent in what they say. But, you know, coming from you, who, you know, in the past has threatened extinction for North Korea and, you know, sung songs about bombing Iran, I don't know, you know, how credible that is. I think this is the right strategy.
Now, Senator McCain is also right that it's difficult. This is not an easy situation. You've got cross-border attacks against U.S. troops.
And we've got a choice. We could allow our troops to just be on the defensive and absorb those blows again and again and again, if Pakistan is unwilling to cooperate, or we have to start making some decisions.
And the problem, John, with the strategy that's been pursued was that, for 10 years, we coddled Musharraf, we alienated the Pakistani population, because we were anti-democratic. We had a 20th-century mindset that basically said, “Well, you know, he may be a dictator, but he's our dictator.”
And as a consequence, we lost legitimacy in Pakistan. We spent $10 billion. And in the meantime, they weren't going after al Qaeda, and they are more powerful now than at any time since we began the war in Afghanistan.
That's going to change when I'm president of the United States.
MCCAIN: I — I don't think that Senator Obama understands that there was a failed state in Pakistan when Musharraf came to power. Everybody who was around then, and had been there, and knew about it knew that it was a failed state.
From this debate transcript and prior statements, it is clear that Sen McCain is far more knowledgeable about Pakistan than Senator Obama. Mr. McCain has also repeatedly stressed diplomacy and close working relationship with Pakistan and demonstrated his commitment by his actions such as several visits and phone conversations with Pakistani leadership recently and in the past. On the other hand, Mr. Obama has made aggressive statements about Pakistan without making serious effort to understand the issues faced by Pakistanis in FATA.
Beyond the debate specific to Pakistan policy, the most oft-repeated phrase by Senator McCain was â€œI donâ€™t think Sen Obama understandsâ€, while Obama repeated â€œI agree with Johnâ€ more often than any other phrase. Just these two phrases capture the essence of the tone of the debate on foreign policy.