When they talk about Iraq and Afghanistan, Barack Obama and John McCain speak with the certainty of men who know what they believe and what they plan to do. Good luck on that: Reality is sure to tangle and vastly complicate the next president’s job no matter who wins.

Obama says the Iraq war was a blunder from the outset and must be ended quickly, to free U.S. forces for an intensified fight against the Taliban and its al-Qaida allies in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. McCain backed the Iraq war at its inception and wants to keep American forces there in pursuit of victory, although what that entails is ill-defined.

Both men say more troops are needed in Afghanistan, where violence has increased dramatically. Obama calls for an additional force of 7,000. McCain doesn’t say how many troops should be added.

The next president’s maneuvering room, however, will be limited by a world of complicated unknowns.

Chief among them: Stiff opposition in Iraq’s parliament to a draft agreement between Washington and the Baghdad government that calls for U.S. troops to leave Iraqi cities by the end of June and withdraw from the country by the end of 2011. Unless the government asks them to stay after all.

The agreement, now seen as unlikely to pass parliament by year’s end, is designed to replace the U.N. resolution under which American forces invaded Iraq and are allowed to be in the country. The new pact became necessary after Iraq said it would no longer seek annual renewal of the U.N. resolution.

U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said he has told Iraqis that American forces will pull back to their bases on Jan. 1 if the agreement is not approved by the year-end deadline.

The Bush administration has warned of “real consequences” if Americans aren’t able to continue in Iraq past that date.

“There will be no legal basis for us to continue operating there without that,” said White House press secretary Dana Perino. “And the Iraqis know that. And so, we’re confident that they’ll be able to recognize this.”

McCain, for his part, insists that the so-called Status of Forces agreement is based on conditions in Iraq, gauging whether U.S. forces can be drawn down. But when asked directly if he would honor the agreement, McCain said, “I’ve always said we could be out based on conditions, and honor and victory, and not defeat.”

What precisely the conditions would be are not clear, and there’s plenty of wiggle room in such a response.

For Obama, the agreement, if it goes into force, comes closer to what he has been proposing all along. His 16-month deadline for pulling out U.S. troops would expire in May 2010. But that’s still more than a year and a half before what’s called for in the pending U.S.-Iraqi agreement. He also wants to leave in place a U.S. presence of unspecified size that would continue training Iraqi forces, protecting U.S. diplomats and other interests and standing by as a rapid-response force in case of a significant resurgence of violence. That position leaves him room to maneuver as well.

Early on, the Iraq war — and the Afghan conflict, to a lesser degree — promised to dominate the 2008 election, forcing both Obama and McCain to set out hard positions on what was then seen as the defining issue in their White House contest.

In the meantime, the economy stumbled under the weight of the home mortgage crisis that, in the final two months of the campaign, spawned the most unnerving financial and economic turmoil to face the country since the Great Depression.

But with the wars having cost a minimum of $800 billion and with a U.S. death toll approaching 5,000 and the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent civilians, the conflicts remain a huge financial and moral drag on the United States. A majority of Americans no longer back the war effort.

And while the extraordinary sectarian violence that shattered Iraq has been tamped down, the centuries-long estrangement of Sunni and Shiite Muslims remains and will probably flare again with the departure of U.S. forces. Kurdish desires for autonomy in the north of the country only complicate the seemingly intractable divide in the Arab majority.

Iraqi security forces — while larger in number, better trained and less beholden to one sect or another — remain unprepared to take over keeping the peace. Most military analysts don’t believe they’ll be ready for that job by Obama’s 16-month pullout deadline. That means the departure of U.S. forces would leave innocent Iraqis vulnerable to intensified bloodshed and misery well beyond the existing difficulties of just getting by in a country with a fractured infrastructure and failed economy.

Iraq’s leaders still have not agreed on a law to divide the country’s massive oil wealth among Sunni and Shiite Arabs and the Kurds. Nor is there resolution of potentially explosive Kurdish demands for control of the city of Kirkuk and the oil-rich region surrounding it. Failure to pass the so-called oil law produced a $79 billion surplus but no mechanism to distribute the wealth among the beleaguered citizenry.

Millions of Iraqis have fled their homes and remain in internal exile or outside the country. The most educated Iraqis — physicians, engineers, college professors and teachers — have left the country.

And the government of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is weak, with little administrative reach beyond Baghdad.

In the face of those realities, Obama argues that setting a troop pullout deadline will focus the Iraqis on solving their own problems instead of relying on the Americans. What’s more, he says, keeping U.S. forces locked in Iraq has allowed militants in Afghanistan — where he contends the danger to U.S. security is far greater — to regroup and threaten the undeniably weak pro-American government of President Hamid Karzai.

McCain, meanwhile, has a strong argument that a U.S. departure now could re-ignite the chaos that gripped Iraq until the second half of 2007. While the Arizona senator bases his position on matters of U.S. honor and national security, Iraq does remain highly unstable, its people deeply vulnerable.

Both candidates might want to remember that George W. Bush railed against nation-building before winning the 2000 White House contest. Then came Iraq, and the United States plunged into one of the largest such projects in American history.

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