- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 12, 2009

Facing fire from his own party over the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, President Obama is getting cover from an unlikely source: Republicans.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona and House Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia are among a growing faction of congressional Republicans speaking up for the Democratic president as he faces questions of whether to escalate the U.S. troop presence in an increasingly bloody conflict.

Mr. Cantor, who has helped lead the fight in the House GOP caucus against much of Mr. Obama’s domestic agenda, voiced support Friday for Mr. Obama’s willingness to carry the fight to the Taliban and al Qaeda forces that have stepped up attacks on U.S. and international forces in recent days.

“I applaud the president for his continued support for the war in Afghanistan and for his commitment to provide the men and women in uniform and for the generals on the battlefield the necessary resources to achieve victory,” Mr. Cantor said Friday.

Mr. McCain compared Democratic skeptics of the prospect of sending more troops to Afghanistan, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, to the critics who opposed a similar military escalation in 2007 by then-President George W. Bush in Iraq.

“They were wrong in Iraq and they are wrong now,” he said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Mr. McCain spoke shortly after the influential Mr. Levin added his voice to Mrs. Pelosi’s in questioning the need for a major escalation of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan.

The Michigan Democrat, who recently returned from a fact-finding trip to the region, said he favored beefing up Afghanistan’s own military and security forces over any major new deployment of American combat forces to fight there.

“We need a surge of Afghan security forces. And we have not done nearly enough to put that in motion,” Mr. Levin told reporters.

The lawmaker’s remarks followed Mrs. Pelosi’s blunt warning Thursday about crumbling political support in Congress for an Iraq-style surge of forces in Afghanistan, where August’s total of 51 U.S. military fatalities was the highest since the war began the month after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“I don’t think there’s a great deal of support for sending more troops to Afghanistan, in the country or in Congress,” Mrs. Pelosi said.

The vocal support from congressional Republicans came after a group of prominent conservatives earlier in the week issued an open letter backing Mr. Obama’s willingness to commit more troops and condemning what they called “a growing sense of defeatism” about the war.

Among the signatories: former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Republican political strategist Karl Rove and neoconservative author William Kristol.

Mr. Obama faces a burgeoning revolt among liberals in his own party after his commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, last week presented him with a major strategic review of the war widely expected to make the case that tens of thousands of new American troops will be needed to battle resurgent Taliban and al Qaeda forces there.

Mr. Levin said he was not opposing the deployment of the 21,000 additional troops Mr. Obama ordered to Afghanistan earlier this year. He said he also opposed for now a call by another prominent Senate Democratic liberal, Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, for a timetable to force Mr. Obama to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.

With the troops now in the pipeline, some 68,000 U.S. soldiers will be in the country by the end of the year.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs and United Nations Ambassador Susan E. Rice both tried to soothe rising discontent over the war, saying any decision on future troop levels was still a long way off.

“It will be many weeks of evaluation and assessment,” said Mr. Gibbs.

Miss Rice said it is too early to make a judgment on the military and strategic state of the war, with Afghanistan still working its way through a disputed presidential election and with Mr. Obama’s previous deployment still under way.

“It is frankly premature to make judgments about the course of the strategy … we are in the process of implementing,” she told reporters.

“What the American people and members of Congress need to understand is that we have a very crucial stake in Afghanistan and, if we need any reminder of it, it comes today” on the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, she added.

But the Aug. 20 Afghan elections, in which an apparent victory by incumbent President Hamid Karzai has been marred by widespread charges of vote rigging and fraud, has only heightened Mr. Obama’s political difficulties at home.

“It obviously makes our goals in Afghanistan more complicated,” Mr. Levin said, because a stronger Afghan army “can only be as strong as it needs to be if it is defending a government and is guided by a government that has the support of the Afghan people.”

Right now, “there are clouds above the results,” Mr. Levin added.

Moderate Democrats are giving Mr. Obama more leeway, hoping the military surge will produce political dividends.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday he was advising fellow Democrats in the chamber to “take it easy.”

“I don’t think we need 100 secretaries of state,” he said.

But Mrs. Pelosi said House members are focused on Sept. 24, when the White House is expected to present a series of political, military and economic benchmarks on its progress in Afghanistan - six months after Mr. Obama unveiled his overall strategy for the war.

Barbara Slavin contributed to this report.

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