WASHINGTON — Sen. Jim DeMint wrote Sen. Barack Obama a letter Tuesday urging that the two senators hold hearings on Afghanistan, and DeMint then joined forces with top aides to Sen. John McCain in criticizing Obama's war plans.
DeMint's high-profile appearance with McCain's senior foreign policy aides came as McCain and Obama delivered speeches laying out sharply differing views on Iraq, Afghanistan and the broader U.S. effort to defeat fundamentalist Muslim forces.
Obama is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's subcommittee on European affairs, and DeMint is its senior Republican member. The subcommittee has jurisdiction to convene hearings on Afghanistan because NATO troops there are allied with U.S. forces.
"The success of Afghanistan is critical to the future of NATO and vital to our efforts to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban," DeMint told Obama in the letter. "As the situation in Afghanistan grows more tense, it is time for us to hold a hearing on the mission there."
Obama and McCain, the presumptive Democratic and Republican presidential nominees, focused on Afghanistan two days after an insurgent attack killed nine U.S. soldiers and wounded 14, the highest American single-day death toll there in three years.
"I believe as we've made progress in Iraq, we've seen deterioration in Afghanistan," DeMint said in a conference call with reporters arranged by the McCain campaign.
"My concern is not just with Barack but (with) the committee itself and not having any hearings on Afghanistan over the last year and a half on our subcommittee," DeMint said. "We have missed a lot of opportunities to take more responsibility and to bring to public light the problems."
Obama didn't respond directly to DeMint. Instead, Obama's aides sent emails with past quotes from Obama backers responding earlier this year to similar criticisms from Sen. Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primary season.
One email from the Obama campaign noted that DeMint had failed to attend a subcommittee hearing April 7 on diplomatic nominations by President Bush.
"It reveals the critique (by DeMint) as politically motivated," said Tommy Vietor, an Obama spokesman.
Obama aides added that the European affairs subcommittee that Obama chairs wouldn't be the appropriate panel to hold Afghanistan hearings, pointing instead to the subcommittee on Near East and South Asian affairs.
DeMint, who has been cited as a possible McCain running mate, backed Mitt Romney during the GOP primary campaign. Fellow SC Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Seneca Republican, is a close McCain confidant and frequent travel companion.
Obama, a first-term Illinois Democrat, called Tuesday for moving at least two U.S. military brigades -- about 7,000 troops -- from Iraq to Afghanistan.
"The Taliban controls part of Afghanistan," Obama said in Washington. "Al Qaeda has an expanding base in Pakistan ... And yet today, we have five times more troops in Iraq than Afghanistan."
In his address, McCain advocated sending even more fresh troops to Afghanistan -- three brigades, or 10,500 troops -- but he and his aides stopped short of saying they should come from Iraq.
"I know how to win wars," McCain, an Arizona Republican, said in Albuquerque, N.M. "And if I'm elected president, I will turn around the war in Afghanistan, just as we have turned around the war in Iraq."
Obama plans to make his first visit to Afghanistan later this month, touring Iraq on the same trip.
McCain mocked Obama for laying out his plans for Iraq and Afghanistan before visiting the war-torn nations and meeting with U.S. commanders on the ground.
"In my experience, fact-finding missions usually work the other way around," McCain said. "First you assess the facts on the ground, then you present a new strategy."
On the conference call with DeMint, Randy Scheunemann, a senior McCain adviser on foreign policy, accused Obama of being willing to stem violence in Afghanistan at the expense of reversing recent progress in Iraq.
"Senator Obama believes that it is necessary to lose in Iraq (in order) to win in Afghanistan," Scheunemann said.
Despite participating in an overtly political conference call arranged by the McCain campaign, DeMint cast his request for Afghanistan hearings in bipartisan terms.
"I'm calling on Senator Obama to work with me to have hearings, to help bring to light the issues in Afghanistan, to put pressure on the (Bush) administration and others to act decisively there before the situation deteriorates more," DeMint said.