Image: Robert Gates, Daniel Inouye
Pablo Martinez Monsivais  /  AP
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, right, speaks with Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday.
By
updated 6/16/2010 7:35:53 PM ET 2010-06-16T23:35:53

A schism deepened Wednesday between U.S. war leaders and Congress as lawmakers — crucial Democrats among them — challenged Pentagon assertions that progress is picking up in Afghanistan.

"I wouldn't call it eroding," Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan said of once-solid Democratic support for President Barack Obama's war strategy. "But there's a lot of fair concern."

Congressional hearings stepped up pressure on the Pentagon, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates complaining about negative perceptions taking root in Washington about the war. Another top military official acknowledged feeling "angst" about the conflict.

But military leaders said the U.S. effort is advancing. "I think that we are regaining the initiative," Gates told a skeptical Senate panel. "I think that we are making headway."

Doubts growing again
The debate comes six months after Obama ordered 30,000 more Americans to the fight with the promise that troop withdrawals would begin in July 2011. That promise helped to placate Democrats who did not want an enduring troop commitment in Afghanistan.

But with the intervening months proving to be a long and deadly slog, and November elections approaching, it's becoming questionable whether Democratic backing can hold. And lawmakers were reminded Wednesday that there is no deadline for completing a troop pullout, and that the pace of withdrawal will depend on circumstances at the time.

Nowhere were congressional concerns more evident than in Wednesday's hearing by the Senate Appropriations Committee with Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Image: Mike Mullen, Robert Gates
Pablo Martinez Monsivais  /  AP
Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, left, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates testify on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday.
Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington said she was frustrated by the number of deaths among the Army Stryker units from her home state, while Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., asked whether it was even possible for the Afghan government to gain control of the country's disparate tribes.

"We've committed so many lives, so much money, here, and we've neglected so many things inside the borders of the United States," said Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy.

Gates and Mullen sought to assure the lawmakers that the fight was worth it.

"We all have angst about this," Mullen said, but "we've put the resources in."

'A tough, tough business'
In a separate Senate hearing, Gen. David Petraeus, who oversees the war as head of U.S. Central Command, compared the conflict to a roller coaster ride with ups and downs similar to what was seen in Iraq.

"This is a tough, tough business," he said. " And those who are living it have to keep their eye on the horizon to ensure the trajectory is generally upward."

Video: Petraeus defends efforts in Afghanistan Military officials say most of the extra troops have arrived but it will take several more months before marked progress can be shown.

Even with reinforcements, the challenges are numerous. Crucial campaigns in the Afghan towns of Marjah and Kandahar are moving slower than expected; NATO remains short on personnel to train the Afghan security force; the Afghan government remains rife with corruption; and a recent spate of Taliban attacks has put June on track to become the deadliest month in the war.

As of Wednesday morning, at least 45 NATO members, including 28 Americans, were killed in Afghanistan in June. That mid-month tally compares with 51 NATO deaths in May and 33 in April.

Much of the debate on Capitol Hill has focused on when U.S. troops should leave. Obama's promise to start the withdrawal in July 2011 helped him with Democrats. But it prompted Republican charges that the U.S. was encouraging the Taliban and demoralizing its allies by setting a hard and fast withdrawal date.

To allay these fears, military officials have repeatedly said the number of troops and how soon they would leave will depend entirely on how the war is going.

They did so again Wednesday.

"We're just not going to know until we get much closer to July 2011 how many troops and where they'll come from, the pace and the place," Mullen said.

During a House hearing Wednesday, California Republican Rep. Buck McKeon asked Petraeus what conditions would have to be in place for troops to leave.

Petraeus said there would have to be better security and governance, and an Afghan security force able to contribute to that stability.

Asked what happens if those conditions don't exist, Petraeus said he would recommend a delay in the withdrawal.

"If that's what's necessary, that's what I will do," he said.

Petraeus' remarks were not likely to change that perception among many Afghans that U.S. support for the war is ebbing.

Afghans still have bitter memories of the 1980s and early 1990s, when the U.S. promised not to abandon the region after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union — then did just that. Civil war and the rise of the Taliban to power followed.

"Many Afghan officials and officers, and allied officers and diplomats, are at best confused and at worst privately believe that we will leave," wrote Anthony Cordesman with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in an analysis published Wednesday.

Cordesman wrote that the war "may well still be winnable, but it is not going to be won by denying the risks, the complexity and the time that any real hope of victory will take."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: U.S. aims for hearts and minds in Kandahar

  1. Transcript of: U.S. aims for hearts and minds in Kandahar

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: There is a massive military operation going on right now in Kandahar . Driving the Taliban out is key to the Obama administration's plan to turn the tide in the war this year. Win that city and -- the idea goes -- the rest of the country will follow, but the approach is different than you might expect, as NBC 's chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel reports.

    RICHARD ENGEL reporting: Dusty, hard line and poor, Kandahar is a Taliban city. Car bombings, assassinations and organized crime are the norm here. But almost no one informs on the Taliban .

    Brigadier General BEN HODGES (United States Army): The government's not really in charge. That's -- I think that's what we're going to be dealing with.

    ENGEL: To secure Kandahar , the US military is using a two-pronged approach: an iron fist in the city's rural outskirts like Argandab , where we saw the 82nd Airborne in action last weekend.

    Unidentified Man #1: Get some ammo!

    ENGEL: But in downtown Kandahar , a very different tactic. The military won't even use the word "offensive" to describe the mission here.

    Brig. Gen. HODGES: Makes people think about artillery, barbed wire, night raids, kicking in doors, that sort of thing. And that's not what we're wanting to do.

    ENGEL: Instead, soldiers like 23-year-old Lisa Earnst patrol Kandahar , armed with a rifle, a smile and a clipboard. Her job this week: polling Afghans on what they want the government to do.

    Ms. LISA EARNST: Who does he think can solve their problems for the security?

    Unidentified Man #2:

    ENGEL: The responses were cold. At a bakery, men tell Earnst security was better when the Taliban were in power. In an antique shop next door, men said they want the Afghan government to end the lawlessness here, but claim it's corrupt. Earnst isn't discouraged. Winning over Afghans, she says, will take time.

    Ms. EARNST: If we show the people, you know, of Afghanistan that we're actually here to help them and we're not like trying to take over their country, then they're able to cooperate better with us.

    ENGEL: But will the soft tactic deter the Taliban ? As Earnst and her soldiers collect opinions, a bomb explodes a few hundred yards away. Earnst and soldiers arrive on the scene. This appears to have been an assassination, a car bomb used to kill a local government official. The victim was the district chief of Argandab , one of Kandahar 's most violent suburbs. The official was killed by the Taliban because he cooperated with American forces . Soldiers tell us they've seen it before.

    Sergeant BRADLEY SWOPE (United States Army): I think they can -- try to use it as a scare tactic because if you can't keep the high-ranking personnel safe, and it kind of makes the people think, `How did the -- how are they going to protect us?'

    ENGEL: The people of Kandahar have yet to decide whether to support the US military and the Afghan government or the Taliban . Richard Engel , NBC News ,

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments