WASHINGTON -- The war in Afghanistan was barely mentioned at all in the midterm elections, pushed aside in favor of jobs, the deficit, and yes, even witches. But this week, with the Obama administration's long-awaited strategic review of Afghanistan coming out and the sudden death of the veteran diplomat in charge of overseeing the conflict, the Afghan troop increase has shifted back into focus and a growing chorus of voices from both sides of the aisle is questioning the president's strategy.
Taking the legislature's temperature on Afghanistan is tricky at this point. Lawmakers haven't voted on a standalone piece of legislation regarding the war in some time, although a senior Senate Democratic aide told The Huffington Post they expect it to be a much bigger issue next year.
"We haven't had what I would call a really good ability to see in detail, via a vote, exactly where people are at right now, how they feel about the president's current policy and how it's working," said a House Democratic aide, adding, "I don't think there's any question, at least within the core of our caucus, particularly among progressives, there's huge frustration with the president and with where the whole effort in Afghanistan is going."
There is a small number of Republicans who are also coming out as critics of the war. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) recently told The Huffington Post that he sees a "great opportunity" for a Republican presidential candidate in 2012 to run on a platform of withdrawing from Afghanistan.
A spokesperson for a prominent progressive organization that has not yet officially taken a position on Afghanistan said there is talk of trying to close that door on the GOP. The spokesperson said that while some within the group are wary to break with the president's policies on the war, an increasing number are frustrated and hope to pressure him to change course.
Obama met with his advisers Tuesday for nearly two hours on the findings of the strategic review on Afghanistan and Pakistan, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said during a press briefing, and the report will be released to the public on Thursday. Foreign policy experts largely expect the conclusions of the study to stay the course, and Gibbs told reporters that the administration's withdrawal strategy will not change.
"The president and [Defense Secretary] Bob Gates are going to kick the can down the road a few months," said Steve Clemons, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. "This is frustrating because people look at these punctuation points in the Afghanistan debate as serious assessments of the challenges, what our intelligence is saying and whether the solvency of deploying American men and women and huge financial resources makes sense. So this approach of kicking the can down the road with stronger benchmarks for performance ... makes it look like a highly political assessment not based on what the facts on the ground are saying."
Clemons also noted that while Obama has delivered resources and troops, the military hasn't turned around and produced the promised results on the ground.
"In practically every area one can think of -- except that the number of Afghan security troops have increased -- the National Intelligence Estimates are showing we have failed to secure the ground, and thus, this is the definition of quagmire," he said. "With our surge going up, we drove up a surge on the other side."
An Independent Task Force report sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations recently offered a "qualified endorsement" of the president's withdrawal strategy, but cautioned that the upcoming December review should offer "a clear-eyed assessment of whether there is sufficient overall progress to conclude that the strategy is working." If there is not such progress, concludes the report, then "a more significant drawdown to a narrower military mission would be warranted."
New National Intelligence Estimates released last week painted a bleak picture of the war in Afghanistan, saying that it cannot be won unless Pakistan works to reign in militants on its side of the border. According to the Associated Press, the intelligence reports "could complicate the Obama administration's plans to claim next week that the war is turning a corner."
Additionally, recent reports have cast further doubt on Afghan President Hamid Karzai's reliability as a partner, especially his having called the United States one of his three "main enemies," a poll showing falling confidence among Afghans regarding U.S. efforts to secure their country and a recent suicide bombing that killed six U.S. soldiers.
Wired's Noah Shachtman reports that Gen. David Petraeus is tripling the air war in Afghanistan.
"Afghanistan itself is no longer a vital interest of the United States, but continuing the war there tears at our own nation's very vitals," wrote Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, in a piece for The Daily Beast on Tuesday. "Of course, I feel for the Afghans; but I feel far, far more for Americans."