EC: "Iran is absolutely kicking your ass right now."

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Michael appeared again on Election Center, tonight hosted by Erica Hill. The first two segments focus on Senator Obama's stance on the Iraq war and also how that war impacts on the war in Afghanistan. The third segment shifts the focus to Afghanistan, and although Michael is only in one brief clip I include it for the overall theme. (Peter Bergen is interviewed in this segment.) The fourth segment focuses more on Afghanistan itself, although Michael again points out that Iran is a major player on both fronts.

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Barack Obama on the defensive over Iraq. He now says he may refine his plan to pull out most U.S. forces within 16 months. And he tried several times today to explain what that means. As always, we will give you the real story here, no bias, no bull.

Iraq is not the deadliest front in the war on terror anymore, though. Afghanistan, the war everybody seemingly forget, now the war we can't afford to ignore.

And now that John McCain has shaken up his campaign, insiders tell us you can expect to see more big changes as soon as next week.

But we begin tonight with Barack Obama's scramble to put out a firestorm over his signature issue: his pledge to get out of Iraq and to get out fast.

Jessica Yellin has been watching. She joins us tonight live from Washington.

Jessica, really pressed on this today. And it took him more than one news conference to clarify, which is not exactly the norm for a candidate.


It really was unusual, a do-over press conference from Barack Obama. He held it to back down mounting questions about whether he is backing away from his pledge to withdraw combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office.

Now, earlier in the day, he had told reporters that he might -- quote -- "refine his policies" after he visits Iraq this summer. And that brought about a deluge of inquires about whether he was doing an about-face on the central promise of his campaign. The pressure clearly became so intense that he decided to face reporters for a second time this afternoon.


SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have also said that I would be deliberate and careful in how we got out, that I would bring our troops home at a pace of one to two brigades per month, and, at that pace, we would have our combat troops out in 16 months. That position has not changed. I have not equivocated on that position. I am not searching for maneuvering room with respect to that position.


YELLIN: Now, Erica, I will tell you that, for the last two days, his campaign staff has been calling me and other reporters, insisting that he is not changing his position.

And this is really crucial for Obama, not just because Iraq policy is central to his campaign but because he's supposed to be the candidate of real integrity. And he cannot be seen as changing positions on such a big issue -- Erica.

HILL: So, then he is pledging, just to clarify, Jessica, that he is going to stick to that timetable of getting troops out of Iraq within 16 months?

YELLIN: Right, good question.

Well, the one area he showed some wiggle room was when he was asked point-blank whether he would commit to keeping that 16-month timetable. He said any good commander in chief listens to their generals.


OBAMA: As commander in chief, I would always reserve the right to do what's best in America's national interests.

And if it turned out, for example, that we had to, in certain months, slow the pace because of the safety of American troops, in terms of getting combat troops out, of course we would take that into account. I would be a poor commander in chief if I didn't take facts on the ground into account.


YELLIN: But, Erica, time and again, he made it clear that his mission is to get those troops out.

HILL: Jessica, though, Republicans, of course, are not going to let this one go, quickly retaliating today, calling him a flip- flopper. Were today's press conferences enough to put out those fires, those claims?

YELLIN: Well, not in the view of the McCain campaign.

I will tell you, they issued a statement saying today that Barack Obama is -- quote -- "reversing the position, proving once again that his words do not matter."

They say, "Now that Barack Obama has changed course and proven his past positions to be just empty words, we would like to congratulate him for accepting John McCain's principled stand." Clearly, they're not going to let this one go -- Erica.

HILL: All right, that's for sure. And we know you will stay on top of it.

Jessica, thanks.

So, is Barack Obama at this point being consistent? Or are his messages about Iraq suddenly mixed messages?

Well, let's see how they sound to the finely tuned ears of tonight's first panel.

Joining us here in the studio, CNN correspondent Michael Ware, who, of course, is usually stationed in Baghdad, but making one of his rare trips stateside. In Washington tonight, Cliff May, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee. He is now president of the Foundation for the Defense of the Democracies, which was founded shortly after 9/11 to fight the ideologies that lead to terrorism. And nationally syndicated radio talk show host Ed Schultz joining us from Fargo, North Dakota.

He is also an Obama supporter and interviewed the senator today.

Cliff, I want to start with you.

Barack Obama insisting he hasn't changed his position here. He is still going pull troops out within 16 months. He is simply refining his position, basically saying, hey, look, you know what? I have learned more.

Isn't that what you want in a leader?


The facts have changed in Iraq. And if he recognizes that and is adjusting his position, I think he deserves not criticism, but praise. An inflexible timetable for leaving would be disastrous. It is very important that we not be defeated in Iraq by al Qaeda or by the Iranian-backed militias.

And if Obama is saying, I'm going listen to my generals, I'm going to sustain the progress that we have achieved there, I'm going to see that when we leave Iraq, we do so in a way that the Iraqi government, the defense forces can defend themselves against our common enemies, I think he should only be praised for that.

HILL: Ed, as an Obama supporter, this is really a point of contention for a lot of Obama supporters. This is why they are backing the candidate, because they want out of Iraq.

If, all of a sudden, he decides, you know what, we can't do it the way I initially thought we could -- you spoke to him today -- how would you look at him? Would you still support him? Would you say, you know what, he is being pragmatic; he is looking at the intelligence, or is he, in your mind, a flip-flopper who you can't get behind anymore?

ED SCHULTZ, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: I thought he was very clear today, Erica, on his position.

It's interesting how the media is having a hard time figuring out what he really means on Iraq. Today, when he spoke to the veterans in Fargo, North Dakota, he was very clear that he's going to change policy in Iraq. He's going to draw down immediately. And it's going to continue with a complete assessment of the situation. He's going to withdraw very responsibly.

Now, none of the people in Fargo today had problem understanding. When I interviewed Barack Obama, I told him, I said, look, they're trying to mix up your position on this. Then he comes out and calls another press conference. And I sensed a real air of frustration on the part of the senator today. He thinks this is some what manufactured by the McCain camp.

HILL: Cliff, is this manufactured, real quickly?

MAY: Look, there are those who are going be angry on the left if he has actually moved his position and now is saying, I'm not going to have an inflexible timetable. I'm going to make sure we sustain the achievements that the Petraeus mission and the so-called surge has managed to accomplish.

I think it's sort of frivolous to talk about it in terms of flip- flopping. This is a war. It is a real war. And what's more, this is the most consequential front in the global war we're fighting. Al Qaeda says that. Ayman al-Zawahari and Osama bin Laden say that. We shouldn't use this as a political football.

It is very important that what we have spent in blood and treasure not be wasted because somebody has an ideological or dogmatic view that we have to get out in so many months.

To the extent he has moved, I think that's praise-worthy. And it means he is understanding what has been accomplished over the past year.

HILL: Okay. He's understanding that.

But do we all understand what is really happening on the ground?

Michael Ware, you're there. You're in Iraq. Would a 16-month timetable be based in reality? Is it even possible?

MICHAEL WARE, CNN BAGHDAD CORRESPONDENT: Well, just to comment on the first part of your question, no, you guys have no idea what's going on.

And pundits sitting in the beltway haven't got a clue. Now, anyone who says that America is avoiding defeat has, like, missed the point. Defeat is already on the cusp. Iran already has the momentum in this war.

And, on the flip side, if the Democrats want to say that you can pull out without America paying an enormous price strategically, then they're deluding themselves.

Both sides in this argument are operating under misconceptions, if not absolute delusion.

HILL: So, will they be able to come back from those delusions, the question.

We're going to continue to discuss this in just a second. We have to take a quick break.

Barack Obama, though, as we know, as we just heard, blaming the McCain campaign for starting these Iraq problems. So, is that the case, or is it perhaps self-inflicted? Do both candidates need to better understand the situation there?

Then, later, the front line in the war on terror may not be where you think. And just who is winning that war anyway? Find out here in the ELECTION CENTER.

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OBAMA: I think what's happened is that the McCain campaign primed the pump with the press to suggest that we somehow we were changing our policy, when we hadn't.


HILL: You heard it there, Barack Obama blaming the McCain camp today for his perception problems with Iraq. But is any of that going to help him with the voters?

Back now to talk about it with us, Michael Ware, Cliff May, and Ed Schultz.

And, Michael, I want to go back to you, because we were talking about the situation on the ground in Iraq. You say neither one of them gets it. As we know, Barack Obama is planning a trip in the very near future to Iraq. When he's there on the ground there, what will he see?

MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He will see a very sanitized, very skewed version of the reality on the ground. And that's just a fact of life.

I mean, even General Petraeus -- General Petraeus is a great commander. And I have known him for several years now. I have nothing but respect for him. But from the American grunt on the street to his platoon commander, company commander, battalion commander, all the way up the chain, they're all divorced from the reality of Iraq.

HILL: Is that because of the safety issue, though?

WARE: Well, when a man in uniform enters your house with a tank behind him, do you think you are going express your real feelings?

Now, it's much different when, say, someone with the luxury of a journalist can slip in there. We get to hear people speak much more freely when the foreign forces are not around. So, often, it's very hard for them to get a true gauge of the Iraqi feeling. I remember when al Qaeda first arrived in Iraq, and the military was months and months and months behind. So, he can only learn what the military knows.

HILL: So, he can learn -- but that would still be something. One would say, especially from the other side, hey, it's good to get him there.

WARE: Right. Full credit to him. He has to go. Politically and militarily, he has to go. Now, the value...

HILL: And, Cliff, this is going to be -- obviously, he's not your guy, Cliff, but John McCain has been there a few times, the first time for Obama going. Is that going to add a little credibility to him?

MAY: I think it will if he goes over there and asks questions.

Michael is right. As a candidate, he's going be a bit in a bubble. But he can talk to a lot of the troops. He can talk to Iraqis. He can learn something. He hasn't served in uniform himself. It will help. Certainly, to have not been there in as long as he has and to say, I'm going to take command of all the armed fores and not to know the battlefields at all on which they are fighting would be difficult for him.

So, he should go. I think he will go. He will talk to Petraeus. And I think he will adjust his position. Will that hurt him on the far left? To some extent, yes. But it probably will bring him some credibility from people in the middle who would like us to leave Iraq, but do not want us to leave with our tail between our legs or in disgrace or in defeat, ceding a principal battlefield like Iraq in the heart of the Arab Middle East to either al Qaeda or to Iran.

HILL: But, Ed, you even said today, in terms of losing voters, that a lot of your listeners in Fargo were okay with what he has been saying now. So, is he going lose that many people from that far left base if he decides to maybe change that timetable a little?

SCHULTZ: Well, let me point out that people on the far left want to win the war on terror as well. We want to fight terrorism, but we want to fight it where it is.

And that's why I asked directly Barack Obama today, are you in favor of sending more troops into Afghanistan? He said unequivocally, yes. Barack Obama told me today face to face that he will send more troops and he's in favor of more troops going into Afghanistan.

It's not a question of whether you want to fight terrorists and rub out those who hit us on 9/11. It's where we're doing it. What we're doing in Iraq is depleting our resources. Barack Obama was very clear about that today. I don't know where this miscommunication is coming from. I think it's the McCain camp. So does the Obama camp. I think it's this Schmidt guy, his first day on the job, doing a pretty good job for McCain.


HILL: I guess they chose the right guy, then, huh, if you're McCain.

Ed, Cliff, Michael, stay right there, because, Ed, you brought it up, Afghanistan. While everyone is arguing what about to do in Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan sliding out of control. Is it time to shift now America's focus to Afghanistan? We will take a look at that.

Also, just how important is it now to find Osama bin Laden in this equation? -- all that and more when we come back -- right here in THE ELECTION CENTER.

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HILL: We know you're getting ready for your July 4 holiday. And that got all of us around here thinking about freedom, specifically, freedom from fear. The fear of terrorism is at its lowest point since the 9/11 attacks, according to a new CNN/Opinion Research poll.

Only 35 percent of those questioned think an act of terror in the U.S. is likely in the next few weeks. Sixty-five percent say a new terror attack is unlikely.

For years, Iraq has really been considered the front line in the war on terrorism. Tonight, though, an important new warning on the table. Afghanistan, the war's original front line, needs our attention again and needs it fast.

Here's David Mattingly.


DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The war the U.S. can't afford to lose may be the war it can't afford to fight. U.S. and allied troops killed in Afghanistan spiked to a seven-year high. Now two months running, it is bloodier than Iraq. U.S. Joint Chief Chairman Michael Mullen says it's a matter of too many fronts and not enough troops.

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN, JOINTS CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: What we're going through right now is an ability to, in almost every single case, win from the combat standpoint, but not unlike the insurgency in Iraq, we don't have enough troops there to hold. And that is key, clearly, to the future of being able to succeed in Afghanistan.

MATTINGLY: Forty-six U.S. and allied troops were killed just in June, the deadliest month for allied personnel since attacking the Taliban in 2001. Experts say the new Taliban is driven by leaders hiding safely in Pakistan, funded by the home-grown illegal opium trade in Afghanistan, and adopting suicide tactics used by al Qaeda in Iraq.

MULLEN: I am and have been for some time now deeply troubled by the increasing violence there. The Taliban and their supporters have without question grown more effective and more aggressive in recent weeks, as the casualty figures clearly demonstrate.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): Maybe even more troubling, casualties in Afghanistan demonstrate how stretched U.S. forces are. Moving troops in Iraq to fight the Taliban elsewhere could jeopardize hard-fought progress. The Pentagon will extend the tours of 2,200 Marines already in Afghanistan.

Mullen says it could be months before the U.S. could move more.

WARE: You can pull them out of Iraq, if you like, and send them to Afghanistan, as long as you're prepared to pay the price in terms of American strategic interests.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): And the winner of that battle would be Iran, emboldened to spread influence without the fear of a full-on military response. It would be a new front Mullen says the U.S. would find very stressful, more than enough reason for the back-burner fight in Afghanistan to again be front and center.

David Mattingly, CNN, New York.


HILL: Joining me now from Washington, CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen, who interviewed bin Laden for CNN back in 1997. He's the author of books about him and al Qaeda. And his recent article in the latest issue of "TIME" magazine explains why Osama bin Laden may still matter.

We're going to get to that question, Peter. But I just want to -- coming off of David's story there, al Qaeda and the Taliban, as we know, really ramping up in Afghanistan, the coalition deaths in that country greater than in Iraq, even though there are far more troops in Iraq. You have said it's the very nature of Afghanistan as a country that makes it more of a challenge to fight the war on terror there. How so?

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, Afghanistan is a third of a size larger than Iraq. It has a much larger population, six million more Afghans than Iraqis.

Topographically, of course, it's very different. Iraq is largely desert, whereas Afghanistan is quite a mountainous -- has many mountainous regions. So, it's a perfect place to wage guerrilla warfare.

And using classic counterinsurgency measures, you would have something like 750,000 security personnel, both Afghan and coalition, to basically manage a situation in Iraq
[he means Afghanistan]. Right now, in fact, you have something like 70,000 members of the Afghan army, 80,000 members of the Afghan police, and 60,000 U.S. and NATO troops. So, there's just not enough people by any kind of standard to really maintain order and security in the country.

HILL: So, then, seven years on, when you look at the progress that has been made in terms of the fight against al Qaeda, where do we stand?

BERGEN: Well, I think the National Intelligence Assessment of July 2007 speaks for itself. By the collective assessment of 16 American intelligence agencies, al Qaeda has resurged and regrouped in the tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Its leadership is protected. Its operational lieutenants are protected. And it's able to conduct operations in other countries.

So, it's -- obviously, that is not a particularly good result.

HILL: No, the picture is actually pretty bleak, is the one that you paint.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said, look, we need -- absolutely need more troops in Afghanistan, but there just aren't any more to give.

So, when you look at a situation like that, what's going to happen in Afghanistan? How bad will it get?

BERGEN: Well, unfortunately, it's already -- as stated in David Mattingly's piece, and as you said earlier in the program -- it's obviously not good right now.

The Taliban is profiting from one of the largest drug bonanzas in history -- 93 percent of the world's heroin and opium is coming out of Afghanistan. The Taliban is profiting from that.

And so this situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. There's also a problem with NATO. NATO is a fractious coalition of 26 countries. And many of them have different aims and will have caveats about what they can and can't do in Afghanistan. So this is not going be something that is easily rectified.

There are, I think, some -- we have some positive developments on the horizon. General Petraeus, who Michael Ware was talking about earlier, is going take over CENTCOM, if he's successfully nominated, which I'm sure he will be. And he will effectively take control of the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. And I would anticipate that that would perhaps bring a shift in strategy and Afghanistan and Pakistan, but, clearly, one is needed.

HILL: And we can all hope for that.

Your latest article for "TIME" magazine, as we mentioned, talks about, does Osama bin Laden still matter? Does he at this point? Is he the mastermind anymore?

BERGEN: Yes, he's providing broad strategic advice to al Qaeda, to like-minded jihadi groups around the world. And he continues to release videotapes and audiotapes.

And I can assure you that he will release a videotape in the run-up to the American election, which is going to quite an interesting moment, because when that videotape comes out a few days before the election -- as I anticipate it will, as it did before the last election -- both campaigns, the Obama campaign and the McCain campaign, will have to have some sort of strategy to know what to say.

Here we are, seven years later. This guy is still on the loose. This is under a Republican administration. That's going to be a problem for the McCain campaign.

On the other hand, the Republican Party is supposed to be better on the war on terror. And that may play well for the McCain camp. But I can assure you that I think both camps will be planning for this, because it was a surprise last time, but not a surprise this time.

HILL: Definitely won't be.

Peter Bergen, always a pleasure. Thanks.

BERGEN: Thank you.

HILL: Just ahead, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says, as we mentioned, we do need more troops to fight in Afghanistan. But if there are only enough troops to fight one war, which one should it be? That question when we come back.

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MULLEN: I don't have troops I can reach for or brigades I can reach to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq.


HILL: But with those troops stretched so thin in the region, as you just heard Admiral Mullen say, should we maybe be moving some of them from Iraq to Afghanistan?

Back with us now, our panel: Michael Ware, Cliff May, and Ed Schultz.

The Obama campaign really jumped on those comments from Admiral Mullen today, saying, look, this is clear. This shows us. This is what Senator Obama's been saying all along, that Iraq is really diverting these needed resources from Afghanistan.

Cliff, is that the case? Is he right?

MAY: This is one war, and we have more than one front, a front in Iraq and a front in Afghanistan.

And we don't want to lose on any of those fronts. Think of World War II, where we had troops committed in Europe, troops committed in Asia, troops committed in North Africa. You don't want to lose on any of your fronts.

Two things. One is, we need a larger military than we have right now to fight these prolonged, low-intensity conflict. Second, NATO has not acquitted itself very well at all. I have talked with a lot of Afghan diplomats and officials recently, and they are very disappointed that NATO doesn't seem to be up for the fight. And, so, the Americans have to do it.

And, third, what was talked about before is very important. The Taliban and al Qaeda has based itself across the border from Afghanistan and Pakistan, where it is very difficult for U.S. troops or NATO troops to penetrate and get at their bases.

HILL: Ed, can you -- can that situation be rectified? Can you get people to come together, then, and work towards a solution?

SCHULTZ: Well, I think it's interesting. Mr. May just told us what a failure George W. Bush is. We don't have allies. We don't have enough equipment. We don't have enough troops. And we have got a manmade issue in Iraq that we created because we invaded them.

The fact is, the fight is in Afghanistan. You can't do it with 32,000 troops. That's what Obama has been saying all along.


MAY: Can I respond to that very quickly, Erica?

HILL: Sure.

MAY: Look, to Ed, everything is political. And he doesn't seem to understand this is a real and a consequential war.

HILL: No, it's not political. No, it's not. You're trying to say that Barack Obama doesn't want to fight terrorism.


HILL: Hey, guys, one at a time. One at a time.


SCHULTZ: That is not true.

MAY: Ed, I didn't say anything of the kind. You know -- and maybe you don't know that, but I didn't.

What I am saying is very clear. That, strategically, Iraq is vitally important and it's the most important battle we're fighting. But I would hate to see us lose. I'd hate to see us lose. It's the heart of the Arab Middle East. It's oil rich. It's right there in the center. Afghanistan...

HILL: You know what, we're tight on time, so I've got to cut you off there. Ed, you're disagreeing, you're saying that Iraq is not the most important battle there.

SCHULTZ: It is not. It is not the most important battle. The most important battle is in Afghanistan. We've got to go after al Qaeda. Those are the people that hit us on September 11th and Barack Obama is willing to do it.

HILL: So Michael Ware, what do you then? If you have to choose between troops in Afghanistan, troops in Iraq, because clearly there are not enough troops to cover both. Which one? Who wins?

WARE: Well, you go after the biggest enemy. And that's Iran. Iran is absolutely kicking your ass right now. Al Qaeda is always going be a threat. They're always going be a pestering, dangerous nuisance. But they're never going be the strategic threat that Iran is. You've been at war with Iran--

HILL: Both President Bush and Admiral Mullen have said, both of them saying yesterday look, we want to do Iran. We want to go after Iran, but with diplomacy. That's the way to do it.

WARE: Absolutely.

HILL: So if they're looking at those battles then - if you have to choose between Iraq and Afghanistan, is there one that gets the troop over the other? Is there one battle that is in fact more important?

WARE: Well, no, they're not because basically, you've got -- your adversaries are fighting you across many theaters. Afghanistan and Iraq are theaters for both al Qaeda and Iran. And they're both making headway in both those theaters. Because you don't have the troops, you don't have the mandate. And these wars have not been fought properly from the beginning. And your allies are not standing up because quite simply, it's not in their interests.

So really, you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't. So that's why you've turned to Britain to escalate their war in Iraq
[he means Afghanistan] as a stop gap measure. But the real war that you've got right now certainly in Iraq is with Iran. And Iran is now playing again in Afghanistan. That's your real dilemma.

HILL: And that I guess is going to be dilemma for whoever wins in November.

WARE: Oh, yes.

HILL: Michael Ware, Cliff May, Ed Schultz, I appreciate it gentlemen.