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Sen. John McCain, at his campaign headquarters in Arlington, Va., August 2, 2008.

Sen. John McCain, at his campaign headquarters in Arlington, Va., August 2, 2008. (Joe Gromelski / Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Republican Sen. John McCain hates stop loss, worries about the number of departing non-commissioned officers and expects more U.S. troops in Afghanistan in the near future.

In an interview with Stars and Stripes on Aug 2, the presidential candidate praised troops serving overseas, calling the current military “the best we’ve ever had.”

But he also warned that he expects continued strain on the military in coming years, including increased U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan and continued irregular warfare against terrorist groups that pose a threat to national security.

Here is the full transcript from the candidate’s interview:

Q: I wanted to start in Afghanistan, because there has been a lot of attention there lately. You’ve talked about sending three combat brigades there, to amp up some of the efforts, but this week Secretary (of Defense Robert) Gates said there are still no plans to increase troop levels there. So, I don’t know if you think we should be increasing those numbers right now, and I don’t know how you plan on getting those extra troops there, where they’re going to come from.

Sen. McCain: First of all, some of them should come from our allies. I’m pleased that the French have committed to increasing their commitment there. I’m hopeful that others of our allies will make similar commitments. But we’re going to have to increase our troop presence.

A lot of that will probably come when we draw down in Iraq. And we are drawing down, and we are succeeding, and we are winning. So a lot of them will be there. Plus, we are increasing the size of the military, and we are going to have to continue that effort.

But let me emphasize: we know what a winning strategy is now. We used it in Iraq, and that strategy will be successful in Afghanistan. My opponent, interestingly, opposed the strategy in Iraq yet basically wants to, whether he realizes it or not, wants to have that strategy, which he said failed in Iraq, in Afghanistan.

Q: Is something like the surge for Afghanistan, though, something that we can wait on? You said when troops draw down in Iraq, that may be …

I’m confident that as president, with the joint chiefs and with others, and input from our allies, and working with our military leadership, we will be able to address this challenge. It’s very difficult, very complex, but fundamentally the same strategy that we’re using in Iraq will win.

Q: Speaking of Iraq, I don’t know how you picture Iraq going into the future. I don’t know how long you think we’ll have troops there, and if some day it will be like Germany or Korea, like all of our readers are used to: A semi-permanent, long-term force.

I think that’s going to be the result of negotiations between the United States and Iraq. There are two examples in the Middle East. One is Saudi Arabia: They didn’t want us to stay, so we left. The other is Kuwait. They asked us to remain there in a security arrangement, and that arrangement has been very helpful, particularly in, among other things, supporting our effort in Iraq.

So I think that will be a subject of negotiations between two sovereign nations. But the important thing is that we have succeeded. If we have been driven out, we would have, in my view, been at a very great risk of a war in returning. So the important thing is that the future is now one where we have different options.

Before we started the surge, we were losing the war. We were losing, and we were going to leave in defeat. And that would have been catastrophic for the United States’ national security, both in Iraq, the region and Afghanistan. So we will work out, I’m sure, those arrangements with the Iraqi government.

Every life is precious. Every wound is grievous. And we mourn for any life that is sacrificed. But the fact is the month of July was the lowest number of casualties since the war began. It wasn’t an accident. It was bought at great sacrifice of American blood and treasure.

We cannot, cannot lose those gains which we have made at such great sacrifice by embarking on what (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs) Adm. (Michael) Mullen has said is “a very dangerous course of action” which is still advocated by Sen. (Barack) Obama: dates for withdrawal. We’ve seen by the massive suicide bombings that al-Qaida and other jihadists are still capable of doing some very bad things.

Q: Speaking of national security, looking ahead at Iran, I don’t know if you see a clear military role there, or is there just a diplomatic role in dealing with them going ahead?

Well, the first thing that’s vitally important is success in Iraq. If we had been defeated, the Iranian influence would have been dramatically increased, not only in Iraq but in the region.

The second thing is, I think it’s a series of steps that have to be taken, beginning with efforts to impose sanctions that would affect Iranian efforts, beneficially effect, Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. They do pose a threat in the region. They have announced their dedication to “wiping Israel off the map.” And we need to act with our friends and allies.

I’m sorry for this long answer, but (French) President (Nicholas) Sarkozy, (German) Chancellor (Angela) Merkel, (British) Prime Minister Gordon Brown and others have said they will join with us in trying to bring financial, diplomatic and other pressures on Iran so they will modify their behavior.

But let me just summarize and say we can never allow a second Holocaust.

Q: Do you have any concerns, though, about what you’ve seen in Afghanistan with the, I don’t want to say wavering, but difficulty in getting other countries to pull their share. Going ahead, will you have the same “gotta keep reminding Germany, gotta keep reminding France” that we have a united front against that?

Obviously, we have to work closely, but when president Bush met with President Sarkozy, President Sarkozy’s words were far more emphatic than president Bush’s were.

We all know that it’s Russia and China, but especially Russia, that are blocking security council actions on sanctions. So we should and must join with our allies that have the ability to bring enormous pressure on Iran to try to deter them from the course of acquiring nuclear weapons.

I’m pleased with cooperation and commitment we’re getting, especially from our European allies.

Q: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the GI bill. You didn’t cast a vote on the final version of the supplemental bill that had the GI bill in there. How do you feel about the final product that came out? Because you were opposed to Sen. Webb’s bill as written before the modifications there. I don’t know how you feel about the final product.

The modifications, in my view, were vitally necessary. There were different studies that showed there would be a decrease in retention. The heart and soul of the military is the non-commissioned officer. And we need to have incentives for people to remain in the military.

And now that we have the provision that, after a period of time, that the servicemember can pass on to their spouse and family members educational benefits, I think that was vital. So I was very active in insisting, along with (Sens.) Lindsey Graham and John Warner and others to insist that we give them the ability, after a certain period of time, to transfer those educational benefits to family members.

I talk to people in the military all the time. I see them all the time. They write me, they email me, and they tell me “I want to have the ability to have my spouse and/or children have these educational benefits, because one of my greatest fears about staying in is being able to afford education for them.”

So I’m glad that I and others stood up to what was a virtual tidal wave of passing this legislation without having one of the most important provisions, in my view: that’s the ability to pass on educational benefits. Not only because they needed it, but also as an incentive to retention. We’ve got to keep highly qualified professionals in the military for as long as we can.

Again, I stood up not for what was popular but what I know is right. It was used by my political opponents to beat up on me very badly. It would have been very easy for me to say, “Fine, I’ll sign on to this.” My first obligation is to the men and women in the military and the military, so that we can retain these high-qualified, highly-trained, highly-experienced individuals.

One of the things I’m most proud of is that I’ve stood up for the men and women in the military, whether it be support for the surge, when even Republicans didn’t support it, and standing up to the point where people said my campaign is dead because I wanted 30,000 additional troops there. Because I’ll always do what’s right for my country first.

I believe this provision concerning educational benefits was vital, was a vital element.

Q: But do you feel like it’s enough to offset the other end, where you did have concerns and they do have more generous benefits with the guaranteed four years.

Look – if I’d have written the bill exactly I’d have written it somewhat different. But I thought we needed to improve educational benefits and we also needed to provide incentives for retention in the military.

I know that your readers are very well aware of what it requires nowadays in terms of training and experience, to have the most professional military we’ve ever had. That means you’ve got to keep a certain percentage of the very best if you’re going to keep the quality of the military what it is.

I might have written some provisions of it differently. But the point is I think we know have a bill that is good for the men and women in the military.

Q: I wanted to ask about stop loss, which has been another big issue for our guys too. Do you think that’s an appropriate tool for filling the gaps?

I hate it. So does everybody in the military. The way you cure the problem is by having a bigger military and succeeding and having victory in Iraq. It’s a symptom of the problem of the mismanagement of the war by (former Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld, which we paid a very heavy price for for nearly four years.

Again, I stood up and said it was wrong, and I was criticized for being disloyal for doing so.

Q: Another big one we’ve heard from folks is women in combat. I don’t know if you’ve looked at those rules and thought about revising those rules regarding having women at the front lines.

It’s vitally important that we sit down, using the experience that we’ve had in Iraq and we’re having in Afghanistan, and say we all know the battlefield has changed. The parameters of the battlefield are dramatically bigger than the kinds of wars and conflicts that we used to fight.

Now, the first thing we need to do is have the joint chiefs study it and then give their recommendations. I as president will consider their recommendations as to how we make all of the adjustments to the new kind of insurgent warfare we are facing, which is an integral part of the struggle against radical Islamic extremists.

Q: The backlog in the VA system is still very sizeable and a concern to even many of the younger guys. I don’t know how you’re looking at the issue, and how you fix something that the current administration has really struggled with.

I think the best thing we could possibly do is focus military medical care and the VA on treating the wounds directly related to combat: PTSD, combat wounds which they are uniquely qualified, through years of experience, to address.

I think in the case of veterans that have ordinary health care needs, routine health care needs, we should do everything we can to give them a card that they can take to the health care provider or doctor of their choice to get health care immediately.

Q: I know there has been a push by the current administration to take those healthier veterans and have them pay to help support the system, even a small, nominal fee. I don’t know if that’s something that you’d support.

First I think we’ve got to make sure that veterans receive the care, and then we have to worry about if there’s any necessary changes. I’m unalterably opposed to telling future generations of Americans that we’re not going to give them the health care they need in service for our country.

That means that I would be very reluctant, I would be opposed to imposing more financial costs.

Q: You brought up PTSD. The stigma with that continues with the troops. There has been a lot of effort by leadership, but I don’t know if you see avenues where they could better focus troops to think about that and find ways to treat them.

Thanks to (CENTCOM commander) Gen. (David) Petraeus and some of the leadership, both in the military and Congress, we’re doing a better job. But we’re far, far from providing not only the treatment after it’s onset but detecting the early signs of PTSD so that we can minimize the impact at its onset.

We all know this kind of war is one that’s one of the most difficult kinds we’ve ever engaged in. It puts tremendous strain on the people who are serving, who happen to be, in my view, the best we’ve ever had.

It’s something that we have to understand that this type of warfare imposes enormous strains on people.

Q: And you don’t see any indications that we won’t be facing this kind of warfare for years to come.

I think this kind of warfare is a very typical kind of conflict we’re going to be in. Hopefully, we will not screw it up the way Rumsfeld did, so that the cost of winning is less in a whole variety of ways.

Q: You brought up Rumsfeld, and I know you’re a fan of Secretary Gates. I don’t know if you’ve talked about keeping him on. Yesterday, he got some questions and seemed like he was counting down the days.

Secretary Gates has done a magnificent job and I can fully understand why he might feel that he’s fulfilled his duties to his country. I’ll just say I value his service and obviously I’m not so presumptuous to making those kind of decisions, but I would certainly want to make use of him in any possible way.

But I certainly understand how hard this job has been on him, how hard it’s been on Ambassador Crocker, and how hard it’s been on Gen. Petraeus. I think three of the last five years Gen. Petraeus has been in Iraq. That’s a lot to ask.

But we’ve also got non-commissioned officers who have spent three of the last five years in Iraq as well, and nobody is more aware of that than Gen. Petraeus.

Audio clipsSen. John McCain, from his Virginia campaign headquarters

On the importance of the "surge" in Iraq:

On dealing with Iran:

On his initial opposition to the recent GI bill changes:

On using stop-loss to fill gaps in the ranks:

From the archives

During the presidential primaries earlier this year, Sen. McCain's campaign provided answers to a series of questions asked of all the candidates. See the responses here.

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