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Democrats aren’t sold on troop boost

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that she sees little support in Congress or elsewhere in the country for sending more troops to Afghanistan, signaling trouble for President Obama’s new strategy at a critical point in the war.

With the number of casualties rising, Afghanistan embroiled in allegations of widespread election fraud and administration officials mindful that they must show progress by the middle of next year, several experts warned that the administration must move quickly to better explain its approach.

Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat, became the highest-ranking lawmaker to publicly express doubt about further troop increases.

Her comment to reporters came the week after the top U.S. and allied commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, submitted a classified assessment that lays the groundwork for what is expected to be a request for additional combat forces.

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Pelosi and other members of Congress are due to be briefed on the assessment, but she told reporters that a request for additional troops would not be well received.

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

Obama has already approved sending 21,000 additional troops for Afghanistan to boost the U.S. force fighting the Taliban to 68,000. There also are 38,000 NATO troops from other countries in Afghanistan, but the war effort is increasingly unpopular in allied countries such as Britain, Germany and Canada.

After eight years of war, McChrystal is trying to refocus the U.S. effort on counterinsurgency, a strategy that is likely to require more troops. And he is trying to sharply reduce civilian casualties caused by Western forces, which have angered Afghan officials and the people.

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Officials have not revealed how many additional troops McChrystal may seek. One senior Defense official said last week that McChrystal was believed to favor increasing the overall U.S. force to about 80,000 troops. Within that total, officials also have said they might increase the combat force by as many as 14,000, sending support units home and replacing them with front-line troops.

The military toll is increasing. A total of 192 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan this year, according to the website icasualties.org. July and August set records as the deadliest months since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

Many Democrats and even some conservative Republicans are growing nervous about the buildup.

Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, has said he wants the administration to be “extra careful” about sending more troops.

And polls show declining support for the war effort. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll last week showed 57% of respondents opposing the war, up 11 percentage points since April.

As the Obama administration refines its policy, it also is struggling with charges of vote fraud in last month’s Afghan presidential election, and the possibility of a long period of instability there until the results are settled. Almost complete results released this week put incumbent Hamid Karzai over the 50% threshold needed to avoid a runoff. But a United Nations-backed watchdog group found “clear and convincing evidence of fraud,” and ordered a partial recount.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said McChrystal’s appraisal was part of a “rigorous assessment process” that had not been completed.

“The president will make a decision based on what he thinks is in the best national security interests of this country,” Gibbs said, and adding that any request for troops or other resources would be made in coming weeks.

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The administration is expected to outline for Congress this month how it will define progress in Afghanistan, a presentation Pelosi said would attract wide interest.

Analysts said the Obama administration faced a potentially cold reception.

“There is no question that quite a number of members of Congress . . . have very serious questions about whether we should stay in Afghanistan and whether more resources are required,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, a military strategist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Even before the troubled Afghan elections, some senior Capitol Hill Democrats, including members with strong national security credentials, had been privately expressing misgivings about the possibility of increasing the troop buildup.

Still, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters that he was urging lawmakers to wait and see what Obama recommends.

“And then we can dissect that any way we want,” he said.

But as Democrats expressed concern about troops, a group of prominent conservatives, including Karl Rove, former President Bush’s political advisor, and Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice presidential nominee, praised Obama in an open letter this week.

The authors wrote that the new military command had crafted a strategy to “reverse the errors of previous years.”

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“We call on you to fully resource this effort,” they wrote.

Obama administration officials have sent mixed messages about troop increases, with several top officials warning publicly in recent months against a large U.S. “footprint.” But in a turnabout last week, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who had earlier expressed such concerns, said he would be open to the request.

Gates said in July that the U.S. needed to show progress in Afghanistan by next summer, or risk losing public support for the war.

Analysts said the administration’s failure to better explain its strategy could lead to problems if it decides to send more troops.

“American public sentiment is part of winning this war,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation.

“Classified strategies are helpful to decision makers, but not to the public. There would be great benefit to an unclassified version. And McChrystal’s testimony on a new strategy can only help.”

Except for Obama’s August speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the White House has offered little extended comment on Afghanistan since the new strategy was announced in March, analysts noted.

“You have seen the election crisis and a rise in violence that has not been seriously addressed by anyone in the White House,” Cordesman said. “The administration has not prepared anyone in either party -- in terms of whether there is a credible new strategy, why more forces are needed, what will be accomplished. This is going to be a serious problem for him.”

Still, if McChrystal requests more troops, and Obama approves them, there is little likelihood that congressional Democrats would cut off funding, Eaglen said.

“Democrats continue to want to appear strong on defense,” she said. “If Gen. McChrystal outright requests additional troops, Congress is going to give him what he wants.”

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julian.barnes@latimes.com


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