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WASHINGTON, Sept 27: Pakistan will remain the main theatre of the US-led war on terror whether it is a Democratic or a Republican who occupies the White House next year.

But if the Democrats win, President Barack Obama will send troops into Pakistan to catch senior Al Qaeda leaders, but if the Republicans win, President John McCain will not. He will rely on political and economic engagement with Pakistan to defeat terrorists.

The two candidates expressed these views at their first debate on Friday night.

“If the United States has Al Qaeda, (Osama) bin Laden, top-level lieutenants in our sights, and Pakistan is unwilling or unable to act, then we should take them out,” said Senator Obama.

Mr McCain disagreed. “We’re going to have to help the Pakistanis go into these areas and obtain the allegiance of the people. It’s going to be tough,” said the Arizona senator.

“We’ve got to deal with Pakistan, because Al Qaeda and the Taliban have safe havens in Pakistan, across the border in the northwest regions,” Mr Obama insisted. “Although, you know, under George Bush, with the support of Senator McCain, we’ve been giving them $10 billion over the last seven years, they have not done what needs to be done to get rid of those safe havens.”

This did not convince Senator McCain. “On this issue of aiding Pakistan, if you’re going to aim a gun at somebody, George Shultz, our great secretary of state, told me once, you’d better be prepared to pull the trigger,” said the Republican candidate. “I’m not prepared at this time to cut off aid to Pakistan. So I’m not prepared to threaten it, as Senator Obama apparently wants to do, as he has said that he would announce military strikes into Pakistan.”

Instead, Mr McCain advocated winning over the people of Pakistan.

“We’ve got to get the support of the people of Pakistan. He said that he would launch military strikes into Pakistan. Now, you don’t do that. You don’t say that out loud. If you have to do things, you have to do things, and you work with the Pakistani government.”

Mr McCain noted that the new Pakistani president, ‘Kardari’ (Zardari), has got his hands full and the Afghan border region has not been governed since the days of Alexander.

Both candidates want to send more troops to Afghanistan and Mr Obama wants to do that “as quickly as possible because it’s been acknowledged by the commanders on the ground the situation is getting worse, not better.”

He noted that the highest fatalities among US troops in Afghanistan were last year than at any time since 2002 and the Al Qaeda and Taliban militants were crossing the border and attacking US troops in ‘a brazen fashion.’

Mr Obama said he would send two to three additional brigades to Afghanistan because “the place where we have to deal with these folks is going to be in Afghanistan and in Pakistan.”

Mr Obama also favoured a strong US strategy for dealing with a growing poppy trade in Afghanistan that has exploded over the last several years.

Mr McCain also favoured greater engagement with Pakistan and Afghanistan. “I won’t repeat the mistake that I regret enormously, and that is, after we were able to help the Afghan freedom fighters and drive the Russians out of Afghanistan, we basically washed our hands of the region,” he said.

“And the result over time was the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and a lot of the difficulties we are facing today. So we can’t ignore those lessons of history.”