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Congress' confidence in Obama's war strategy slides

Concerns about the lack of progress in Afghanistan are rising as U.S. lawmakers consider an emergency funding bill.

By Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times

8:17 PM PDT, July 20, 2010

Reporting from Washington

With military progress scarce and doubts remaining about the reliability of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, confidence in the Obama administration's strategy in Afghanistan is deteriorating on Capitol Hill, including among prominent lawmakers who had been firm backers of the plan.

Concerns are rising as lawmakers consider a bill for $37 billion in emergency war funding for Afghanistan and Iraq. Although Congress overall still supports the U.S. mission and is unlikely to cut off funding, members may seek to attach conditions, such as requiring the administration to outline goals and fixed timetables to reduce the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan. Democratic and Republican leaders alike have said the lack of specific goals in the Obama plan makes it impossible to define success.

Obama launched a lengthy review of the war after taking office last year. He chose to increase troop strength to about 100,000 and implement a counterinsurgency strategy to try to stem gains by the Taliban militants, but he pledged that U.S. troops would start pulling out next summer. The effort has been beset by disputes with Karzai over election irregularities and systemic corruption, increasing casualties and halting progress in high-profile military campaigns.

The firing this summer of the general in charge of the war effort, Stanley A. McChrystal, highlighted tension between U.S. civilian and military policymakers.

Even among Obama loyalists, a lack of confidence is starting to bubble up. A year ago, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry, praised the administration plan as a "comprehensive, considered path forward." Last week he wondered aloud whether it would ever produce results.

"Many people are asking whether this is the right strategy," Kerry said at a hearing in Washington. "Some suggest it is a lost cause."

Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the committee and a respected voice on foreign policy, welcomed Obama's plan in November. But last week, he complained about a "lack of clarity" and warned that the United States could continue to spend billions in Afghanistan without ensuring a secure, sustainable democracy.

"Arguably, we could make progress for decades — on security, on employment, good governance, women's rights, other goals — expending billions of dollars each year without ever reaching a satisfying conclusion," Lugar said.

On Tuesday, an international conference meeting in Kabul, the Afghan capital, endorsed Karzai's plan for Afghan security forces to assume responsibility for safeguarding the country within four years. Conference participants also backed plans to channel at least half of the $13 billion in annual international aid through Afghan government channels. Currently, only one-fifth of such assistance is funneled through Afghan ministries.

In return, Karzai promised to fight corruption, requiring officials to declare their assets and strengthening a task force meant to crack down on graft.

White House officials acknowledge that lawmakers have been raising questions and say the administration shares their concerns.

"We share the same sense of urgency that many members of Congress have about making progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said. "There are always going to be challenges in a war, and we face a difficult fight in Afghanistan."

Many in Congress still believe the U.S. faces a greater risk if it leaves too soon and Afghanistan descends into civil war or again becomes an unchecked operating base for terrorists

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said after returning from Afghanistan last week that the country "has made progress in a number of ways since my visit there in January." Levin said efforts to improve the Afghan army's ability to safeguard the country are working, and as a result the national army "is respected by the people and the Taliban is despised."

Yet Levin also said the viability of the strategy would remain uncertain until allied forces show they can take control of Kandahar, the southern city that is the Taliban's spiritual home, in operations that have been delayed until September and October. He acknowledged recently that he saw "the beginnings of the fraying" of Democrats' support for the war.

Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia last week cited widespread confusion in the U.S. about the effort.

The abrupt shift in tone suggests that as public patience with the mission ebbs, congressional leaders who are worried about midterm elections, the federal budget deficit and a war that is costing $7 billion a month are more willing to challenge the administration.

Over the administration's objections, lawmakers have been holding up the $37 billion in additional war funding for the last two months, a delay that was unheard of under President George W. Bush.

On July 1, 162 House members voted for an amendment to require the administration to provide Congress an exit strategy and firm timetable for withdrawal of troops.

Last year, a less controversial version of the bill got 24 fewer votes. This time, it received support from Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D- San Francisco), who, as House speaker, rarely votes, and Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), who usually votes with hawks and strongly endorsed Obama's plan last year.

Another initial supporter who has turned against the war is Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R- Utah), a conservative with support from the "tea party" movement.

Military setbacks and controversies haven't helped the White House.

An offensive launched in February in the key town of Marja has failed to quell violence.

U.S. fatalities have climbed to nearly 1,200.

The firing of McChrystal last month has raised doubts on Capitol Hill, said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"A lot of folks on both sides of the aisle think this effort is adrift," Corker said in an interview. "A lot of folks you'd consider the strongest hawks in the country are scratching their heads in concern."

Lawmakers have been gentle with the military brass. Senators of both parties showered praise on Army Gen. David H. Petraeus last month when he was confirmed to replace McChrystal. But they are losing their inhibitions about roughing up the administration's civilian representatives.

When Richard C. Holbrooke, special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, appeared on Capitol Hill last week, Corker complained that after listening for 90 minutes he had "no earthly idea what our objectives are on the civilian front. So far, this has been an incredible waste of time."

Lawmakers' strong reactions are partly about politics in an election year. According to an ABC TV- Washington Post poll released last week, only 43% of Americans believe the war is worth fighting.

Although developments are bolstering members of Congress who oppose the war, many war supporters in centrist or liberal districts are feeling vulnerable, analysts say.

In the center, "positions are becoming much more problematic," said Ross K. Baker, a former Senate aide and expert on Congress.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), a staunch conservative who has turned against the war, said that "there's growing apprehension in Congress, and there should be."