WASHINGTON — Key Senate Democrats signaled Friday that any push by President Barack Obama to send more troops to Afghanistan is likely to hit resistance on Capitol Hill, deepening a growing political divide on the war even within his own party.
Speaking on a day when a U.S. bombed tanker trucks hijacked by the Taliban killing 70 people, including some civilians, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin said the U.S. must focus more on building the Afghan security forces. His cautionary stance was echoed by Sen. Jack Reed, who is also on the committee and spent two days in Afghanistan this week with Levin.
The senators will return to Washington next week, just as Obama receives a new military review of Afghanistan strategy that officials expect will be followed up by a request for at least a modest increase in U.S. troops battling insurgents in the eight-year-old war.
Obama came into office pledging to shift U.S. focus from the war in Iraq to the Afghan fight, which had long been a secondary priority. But as war-weary Americans have watched another 21,000 troops go to Afghanistan, and U.S. casualties rise, support for the war has waned.
As a result, lawmakers say they want the U.S. to more quickly train and equip the Afghan Army and police so that the embattled country can take over its own security needs.
"There are a lot of ways to speed up the numbers and capabilities of the Afghan army and police. They are strongly motivated," Levin said from Kuwait. "I think that we should pursue that course ... before we consider a further increase in combat forces beyond what's already been planned to be sent in the months ahead."
Levin said there is a growing consensus on the need to expedite the training and equipping of the Afghan army to improve security in Afghanistan, where 51 U.S. troops died in August, making it the bloodiest month for American forces there since the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001.
In a separate call, Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, said the U.S. must use a multi-pronged approach: build up the Afghan Army, send more civilians to Afghanistan to provide economic and political assistance, and reach out to Taliban supporters who are willing to recognize the Kabul government.
"If we're successful on rapidly building up the Afghan military ... that diminishes the need for additional combat troops," he said.
The hesitancy to boost troops levels comes just days after Obama's defense chief suggested a willingness to consider an increase. Defense Secretary Robert Gates this week urged patience with the war effort, and said he would be comfortable with a larger U.S. military presence in Afghanistan as long as the increase reassured the country's citizens that the Americans were there for the benefit of Afghans.
Gates has declined to talk about any specific recommendations contained in a new review of Afghanistan strategy sent this week to them and the president by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan. But he has also said he could only consider a major increase in combat troops under certain conditions.
McChrystal is expected to send a separate recommendation on troop increases, but how many troops McChrystal wants is unclear. There could be as many as 20,000, but in recent days military officials have predicted it will be far less, perhaps fewer than 10,000.
Levin and Reed spent two days in Afghanistan visiting with Marines in the Helmand Province and speaking with government leaders and ministers in the capital city of Kabul. The trip also included stops in Iraq, Kuwait and Pakistan.
Levin said McChrystal did not share any plans for additional troops but they discussed efforts to provide Afghan troops with more training and equipment.
The Michigan Democrat said the delegation met with elders in the volatile Helmand province who urged them to help Afghanistan provide for its own security so American troops would no longer be needed.
"They want us to give them the support that they need to be self-sufficient in terms of their security. I believe that's what they want, that should be our goal and I believe it's achievable," he said.
Any additional funding approved by Congress likely will be spent to train Afghan army, police and other security forces to take over the fight against the Taliban, and on equipment to protect U.S. troops from attacks and homemade bombs known as IEDs.
By the end of the year, an estimated 68,000 troops will be in Afghanistan, 21,000 of which were ordered there by Obama last spring. Military commanders and State Department officials on the ground have said many more are needed to get the job done.
Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report from Providence, R.I.