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Mr. McCain has disagreed with Mr. Obama on an Iraq pullout timetable and warned that a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq could jeopardize gains both there and in Afghanistan.

“What happens in Iraq matters in Afghanistan. … It matters in all the countries in the region,” he said during a speech in June.

A veteran of the Vietnam War and a former prisoner of war, Mr. McCain said Iraq has played a central role in gaining ground against al Qaeda and that a hasty withdrawal would lead to a resurgence of the terrorist organization.

During the summer, however, U.S. commanders in Afghanistan and senior Pentagon officials, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael G. Mullen, called for an increase in troops in Afghanistan.

Mr. McCain´s campaign then revised its position.

In a July press release, Mr. McCain stated that “the status quo in Afghanistan is unacceptable, and from the moment the next president walks into the Oval Office, he will face critical decisions about Afghanistan. … Thanks to the success of the surge [in Iraq], these forces are becoming available, and our commanders in Afghanistan must get them.”

Later the Arizona Republican said in an interview with MSNBC that NATO partners also must do more in Afghanistan, providing three additional brigades if possible. There are about 33,000 U.S. troops in the country and another 20,000 from other NATO members.

No matter who occupies the Oval Office, Afghanistan will be a daunting challenge. Violence and charges of corruption have escalated over the past year in a poverty-stricken nation of 32 million.

Progress in Afghanistan will require cooperation from Pakistan, which helped create the Taliban movement in the late 1980s and has regarded Afghanistan as a battlefield with arch-rival India. A new civilian government in Pakistan has pledged to fight militants within its borders but faces rising anti-American sentiment in a nuclear-armed country of 172 million.

“We must be willing to trust in one another because we are both fighting the same enemy,” said a senior Pakistani government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Whoever is president needs to truly understand the region and the people if they are to succeed. We joke that sometimes the Pakistanis should be allowed to vote in this upcoming election since any decision the new American president makes will directly affect our nation.”