WASHINGTON — With military progress scarce and doubts remaining about the reliability of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, confidence in the Obama administration's Afghanistan strategy is deteriorating on Capitol Hill, including among prominent lawmakers who had been firm backers of President Barack Obama's plan.
Concerns are rising as lawmakers consider a $37 billion emergency war funding bill. While Congress overall still supports the U.S. mission and is unlikely to cut off funding, members may seek to attach conditions to the bill, such as requiring the administration to outline goals and fixed timetables to reduce the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan. Leaders in both parties have said the lack of specific goals in Obama's plan makes it impossible to define success.
Obama launched a lengthy review of the war in Afghanistan after taking office last year. He chose to increase the number of troops to about 100,000 and implement a counterinsurgency strategy to try to stem Taliban gains, but pledged that U.S. troops would start pulling out by the summer of 2011. The effort has been beset by disputes with Karzai over election irregularities, charges of systemic corruption, increasing casualties and halting progress on 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's 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. "Some suggest it is a lost cause."
Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee and a respected voice on foreign policy, welcomed Obama's plan last November. But last week, he complained about a "lack of clarity" and warned 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.
An international conference meeting Tuesday in Kabul endorsed Karzai's plan for Afghan security forces to take over responsibility for safeguarding the country within four years. Conference participants also endorsed 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 by requiring officials to declare their assets and strengthening a task force meant to crack down on graft.
Administration officials acknowledge lawmakers have raised questions and say the White House shares their concerns.
"We share the same sense of urgency that many members of Congress have about making progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan," said White House spokesman Tommy Vietor. "There are always going to be challenges in a war, and we face a difficult fight in Afghanistan."
Many in Congress still believe the United States faces a greater risk if it leaves too soon and Afghanistan descends into civil war or becomes an unchecked operating base for terrorists again.
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 will be uncertain until allied forces show they can take control of Kandahar, the southern city that is the Taliban's spiritual home. Those military operations have been delayed until September and October. Levin acknowledged to reporters 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 country about the effort.
The abrupt shift in tone suggests that as public patience with the mission ebbs, congressional leaders are more willing to challenge the administration as they become increasingly worried about progress in a war that is costing $7 billion a month, midterm elections and the federal deficit. A recent Congressional Research Service report said, "Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress has appropriated more than a trillion dollars for military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere around the world.''
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 an exit strategy and firm timetable for withdrawal of troops.
Military setbacks and controversies haven't helped the White House.
An offensive launched in February in the key district of Marjah has failed to quell violence. The military has delayed a major offensive to secure Kandahar, which U.S. commanders have described as a linchpin of the war.
U.S. fatalities have climbed to more than 1,000.
The firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal last month has raised doubts on Capitol Hill, said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a member of the 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' strong reactions are partly about politics in an election year. According to an ABC TV-Washington Post poll released last week, only 43 percent of Americans believe the war is worth fighting.