After setbacks, Hoyer hints Dems’ support for Afghanistan is slipping

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Tuesday confirmed that Democrats have “significant” concerns about the direction of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, and hinted that party support for the conflict is eroding.

The majority leader has been one of the most ardent supporters of President Barack Obama’s handling of the war on terror and military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the same time, Hoyer acknowledged that a series of recent setbacks on the ground in Afghanistan has taken its toll on House Democrats as a whole.

“I think that, clearly, the president enjoyed broad, bipartisan support for the plan that he proposed in dealing with the counterinsurgency, and to stabilizing Afghanistan and to then having a plan to phase out our involvement and turn that responsibility over to the Afghan government and the Afghan people,” Hoyer said in a press conference Tuesday. “Clearly, as is usually the case, it hasn’t gone as smoothly as I think we would have liked, or as was contemplated.

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“I think there’s a significant concern about Afghanistan,” Hoyer said of his fellow Democrats in the House. “I think we all share that concern.”

A growing chorus of Democrats — many of whom supported Obama’s Afghanistan plan in a March vote in the House — have begun to share the concerns of their liberal colleagues, who have long argued that the United States is playing against a stacked deck of political corruption and unwinnable fights against insurgent strongholds.

Hoyer confirmed that concern is spreading through the Democratic Caucus.

“Do you hear increasing discussion of it? I think the answer is yes,” he said.

Hoyer’s comments Tuesday came as Gen. David Petraeus, the head of Central Command, and Michèle Flournoy, the undersecretary of Defense for policy, sought to allay growing congressional worries.

Following recent military and political setbacks, the Senate and House Armed Services panels scheduled hearings on the progress in Afghanistan, particularly in the southern part of that country, where military operations are progressing more slowly than anticipated.

“We are heading in the right direction in Afghanistan,” Flournoy told the Senate Armed Services panel on Tuesday. “We are regaining the initiative and the insurgency is beginning to lose momentum. That said, the outcome is far from determined.”

Flournoy insisted that fixing the situation in Afghanistan “will require patience, persistence and flexibility.” Flournoy expressed “cautious optimism” with regard to a successful outcome of the mission in Afghanistan, and confidence that the top military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, will be able to show “demonstrable progress” by the end of this year.

Flournoy and Petraeus did not have much time to make the case for the administration’s approach in Afghanistan. The Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday was cut short after Petraeus briefly fainted. Even though he recovered quickly, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the panel’s chairman, decided to continue the hearing on Wednesday morning.

Levin made it abundantly clear during the hourlong hearing on Tuesday that he was concerned the Afghan army and police personnel are not being trained quickly enough and that the U.S. military too often takes the lead in operations.

Training and equipping Afghan national security forces is “the key to success in Afghanistan,” Levin said. “Today, operations in Afghanistan are excessively dependent on coalition forces.

Before his brief collapse, Petraeus faced an intense grilling, particularly regarding the July 2011 date set by Obama for beginning a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

Petraeus emphasized that Obama sought to convey two messages with the July 2011 timeline: one of “enormous additional commitment” of troops and other resources and one “for urgency.”

Petraeus said that July 2011 is the beginning of a process for transition that is “condition-based.”

Petraeus created suspense when he paused for what seemed a fairly long time after Levin asked him whether his statement of continued support for Obama’s policy represented his best “personal” and “professional judgment.”

“In a perfect world, Mr. Chairman, we have to be very careful with timelines,” Petraeus eventually hedged. “There was a nuance to what the president said that was very important, that did not imply a race for the exits.”

The panel’s ranking member, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), criticized Obama’s deadline for beginning the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“This obviously sends a message to our enemies that we are leaving, and to our friends that we are leaving,” McCain said. “I continue to worry a great deal about the message we are sending to the region about whether we are actually going to stay or not and whether we are going to do what is necessary to succeed rather than setting an arbitrary timeline.”

The debate and concern over Afghanistan strategy comes at a crucial time in the House. The lower chamber has yet to approve a war emergency supplemental for the remainder of 2010.

While a senior Democratic aide acknowledged that a recent trio of negative events in Afghanistan “has given everyone pause,” leaders do not believe the war supplemental is in jeopardy as a result.

“There’s more concern than there has been, but it’s not at the point where it’s endangering passage,” the aide said.

Democratic leaders also expect the White House to continue the sales pitch of the U.S. mission as the war funding vote draws nearer.

“I would think that they’d realize that this is a tough vote for us, and that they’d get involved directly,” said the aide.

Hoyer said the war supplemental spending bill would be “subject to moving” as soon as it is “ready to go,” which could be as early as this week, and affirmed his support for the spending levels Obama requested.

“I think the president’s plan has had — relatively speaking — very significant success, relative to the Bush administration,” Hoyer said. “And that’s good news.”

But the No. 2 House Democrat would not say if the votes would be there when the roll is called. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has not shied away from saying publicly that she will not whip Democrats on further war supplementals, describing such votes as “votes of conscience.”