WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans stand behind President Barack Obama's strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), which will prevent the war from becoming a "domestic political football" like the war in Iraq.
"The good news about this war -- if there's any good news about any war -- is that hasn't become a domestic political football like the Iraq war," McConnell said during a breakfast discussion with Politico's Mike Allen on Tuesday. "What made the Iraq war so challenging here is that it became a 'shirts vs. skins' domestic political issue. In 2007, for example, I had 250 antiwar demonstrators in front of my house in Louisville, Ky. Now, Louisville is not San Francisco, this is sort of an unusual thing. We haven't seen any of that with the Afghan war."
McConnell added that "virtually" every GOP senator supports Obama's war policy, although he implied that there were a few dissenters.
"As the Republican leader of the Senate -- I think I can speak for virtually all of my members on this, but not all of them -- we support what the president's doing," McConnell said. "So I think that even though we are a country that greatly values life and always hates it when we lose anyone, the post-9/11 mission of keeping Afghanistan from becoming a haven again is important. And I support it, and I think the president is doing the right thing."
The minority leader recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he traveled with Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.). While there, they met with Gen. David Petraeus, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Pakistani military chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani and U.S. troops.
In Afghanistan, McConnell said the Taliban had a "very bad year" in 2010, and was likely to face an even worse year in 2011. "We're making substantial headway," he said, compared to what he saw on his last trip there in January 2010. "The best we can hope for in the near-term future in terms of getting them back to what is normal for them is getting them back to 30 years ago, before the Russians came in -- which was a relatively peaceful and to some extent self-sustaining agricultural society. That's about all we can hope for. We and our allies will be there a long time, not probably with the kind of military presence that we currently we have, but it will be a long-term [commitment]."
On Pakistan, McConnell said that the good news was that the military there is a "pretty solid institution" that has "taken it to the terrorists in the tribal areas, with several successful efforts." The bad news, he said, is that the Afghan Taliban is headquartered in that country. "We would hope at some time in the future to have more cooperation from the Pakistanis on that issue," he said.
Senate Republicans appear more united on Afghanistan than their counterparts in the House, or GOP grassroots organizations. Three Republican critics of the war -- Reps. Walter Jones (N.C.), Ron Paul (Texas) and Jimmy Duncan (Tenn.) -- are planning a meeting in February to discuss alternatives to the current strategy, aiming to include at least 10 House freshmen who may be persuadable.
A recent poll by the Afghanistan Study Group found that two-thirds of conservatives support a troop reduction in Afghanistan. Seventy-one percent of conservatives overall and 67 percent of Tea Party supporters said they worry that the cost of the war "will make it more difficult for the United States to reduce the deficit this year and balance the federal budget by the end of this decade."