WASHINGTON - Growing skepticism among key Democratic lawmakers about the U.S. commitment to the war in Afghanistan is certain to pose one of the most difficult political challenges faced by President Barack Obama in his first year in office.
With the military apparently preparing to press for a significant increase in the number of U.S. troops deployed to combat an increasingly effective Taliban insurgency, Obama, who recently called the conflict a "war of necessity", will soon be forced to decide whether to grant the request at the risk of alienating many in his own party.
His decision will likely not be made any easier by enthusiastic Republican backing for the military's anticipated recommendations. Neo-conservatives and other hawks have been arguing for weeks that anything less than "victory" in Afghanistan may well have catastrophic consequences for U.S. national security not only in Afghanistan, but Pakistan and beyond.
"We are confident that not only is (the war) winnable, but that we have no choice," wrote Republican Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and the hawkish independent Democrat Joseph Lieberman in the Wall Street Journal Monday.
"We must prevail in Afghanistan," they went on, insisting that preventing a Taliban takeover "remains a clear, vital national interest of the United States".
Their column was entitled "Only Decisive Force Can Prevail in Afghanistan."
The increasingly polarized debate was on display Tuesday during the reconfirmation hearings of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Washington will likely have to send more troops to Afghanistan if its new counterinsurgency strategy led by Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal was to have any hope for success.
"A properly resourced counterinsurgency probably means more forces, and, without question, more time and more commitment to the protection of the Afghan people and to the development of good governance," he said, although he declined to cite the number of additional troops he intends to request.
McCain quickly agreed. "We will need more U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan, not less or the same amount we have today," he asserted, arguing that, much like the so-called "Surge" in Iraq, more U.S. troops were needed to hold off the insurgents until the indigenous forces could carry the burden.
But Sen. Carl Levin, the committee chairman, insisted that Washington and its NATO allies should first accelerate the training and equipping of Afghan forces before additional U.S. troops should be sent to the theater.
Such an effort, said Levin, who returned from a visit to Afghanistan just last week, "would demonstrate our commitment to the success of the mission that is in our national security interest, while avoiding the risks associated with a larger U.S. footprint".
"(T)hese steps should be urgently implemented before we consider a further increase in U.S. ground combat troops, beyond what is already planned to be deployed by the end of the year," he said.
Shortly after taking office, Obama, who had argued during his presidential campaign that the administration of his predecessor, George W. Bush, had made a major strategic mistake by diverting resources from Afghanistan to Iraq after the Taliban's ouster in late 2001, authorized the deployment of 17,500 more U.S. combat troops and 4,000 trainers to Afghanistan.
That deployment is expected to be completed by the end of this month this fall, bringing the total number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to some 68,000. Some 39,000 NATO forces are also deployed there.
This year's increase in troop strength, however, has not yet translated into a more secure environment; indeed, attacks against U.S. and NATO forces - and against Afghan civilian targets - have steadily increased since the spring. Well over 300 U.S. and NATO troops have been killed so far in 2009, the highest toll for any year in a war that is now eight years old.
In addition to the mounting casualties and war fatigue, the increasingly notorious corruption of the government of President Hamid Karzai and the widespread fraud apparently committed to secure his re-election have contributed to a distinct shift in public opinion over the past couple of months, a trend that appears to have accelerated in recent weeks.
A CNN poll taken late last month found that 57 percent of the public now opposes the war, up from 46 percent in April. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday, only one in four respondents - and less than one in five self-identified Democrats - favour Mullen's appeal to send more troops to Afghanistan.
Moreover, for the first time the percentage of those respondents who said they believed that winning in Afghanistan was essential for success in the "war on terrorism" fell to below 50 percent.
Leading Democratic lawmakers, who until now have tried to avoid any criticism of the war Obama has made a top priority, appear to be following the public's lead, especially in the last week.
"I don't think there's a great deal of support sending more troops to Afghanistan in the country or in the Congress," noted the powerful Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, last Thursday, a statement whose truth was underlined by a confidential National Journal survey of Democratic lawmakers that found that only 13 percent supported increasing the number of troops.
"I think at this point sending additional troops would not be the right thing to do," said Sen. Dick Durbin, a staunch and long-time supporter of the president, over the weekend. "(L)et the Afghans bring stability to their own country. Let's work with them to make that happen."
A major emerging theme among the war's critics, particularly Democrats, is that Obama could meet a similar fate in Afghanistan as former president Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam. Like Johnson 40 years ago, Obama has an ambitious domestic reform agenda that risks, in the view of some observers, being undone by an increasingly unpopular and costly war.
In an interview with the New York Times and CNBC Monday, Obama rejected the parallel but confessed he was concerned about "the dangers of overreach and not having clear goals and not having strong support from the American people".
McChrystal, who is reportedly putting the final touches on his recommendations to Obama, is expected to echo the Democrats' calls for accelerating the build-up of the Afghan army and policy, in part by sending more U.S. trainers, and to request more combat troops, as well.
While commanders in the field have suggested as many as 45,000 more troops in order to contain and begin reclaiming territory from the Taliban, most observers believe McChrystal and the military brass, in recognition of the growing public scepticism, will request at most half that number.