WASHINGTON — 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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
As of Wednesday, at least 47 NATO members, including 30 Americans, were killed in Afghanistan in June. The toll includes a roadside bombing that killed two U.S. service members in northern Afghanistan on Wednesday. The mid-month tally compares with 51 NATO deaths in May and 33 in April.