For two months, Democrats in Congress have been holding up billions of dollars in additional financing for the war, longer than they ever delayed similar requests from President George W. Bush. Most Republican leaders have largely backed a continued commitment, but the White House was surprised the other day when one of Mr. Obama’s mentors on foreign policy issues in the Senate, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, argued that “the lack of clarity in Afghanistan does not end with the president’s timetable,” and that both the military and civilian missions were “proceeding without a clear definition of success.”
“We could make progress for decades on security, on employment, good governance, women’s rights,” he said, without ever reaching “a satisfying conclusion.”
The allies, voicing similar concerns, have abandoned most talk of a conditions-based withdrawal in favor of harder timetables. Britain’s new prime minister, David Cameron, did his best to sound as though he and Mr. Obama were on the same page during his first visit to the White House on Tuesday, but he also told a BBC interviewer while in Washington, “We’re not going to be there in five years’ time.”
The Dutch leave this fall, and the Canadians say they intend to follow suit by the end of 2011.
As one of Mr. Obama’s top strategists said this week, with some understatement, “There are signs that the durability of this mission has to be attended to.”
All this has made it harder than ever for Mr. Obama to convince the Afghans and the Pakistanis that the West’s commitment is enduring. “Politically, the support is absolutely crumbling,” said David Gordon, a former top official on the National Intelligence Council and at the State Department who is now at the Eurasia Group. “You can’t hide that from the players in the region, and when they see it, it makes them hedge even more, preparing for the post-American era.”
In public, White House officials continue to argue that Mr. Obama struck the right balance last December, and sent the right signals, when he called for a short-term troop increase followed by a drawdown. “America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan,” he said then, quoting President Eisenhower about the importance of balancing America’s foreign commitments with its domestic needs.
But when granted anonymity, some senior White House officials who a few months ago said that this would be “the year of Kandahar” — referring to plans to retake control of the city that was the spiritual center of the Taliban — now acknowledge that the chances of progress there are growing more remote.
From the start of Mr. Obama’s review of the war’s strategy last year, he and his advisers debated the debilitating effects of what one called “the weariness factor.” Their calculation was that the withdrawal from Iraq, combined with the 18-month limit on the troop increase established by Mr. Obama, would quiet critics in his own party. That assessment proved optimistic. Earlier this month, 153 Democrats, including the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, voted in favor of an amendment that would have required a clear timetable for withdrawal. Only 98 Democrats joined Republicans in defeating it.
But over the long term, what may be more damaging is the fact that members of the foreign policy establishment, even those who vigorously supported ousting the Taliban in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks, are gaining traction with arguments that the White House has simply failed to make the case that the rising cost is worth it.
“After nearly nine years of war,” Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a senior official in Mr. Bush’s State Department, wrote over the weekend in Newsweek, “continued or increased U.S. involvement in Afghanistan isn’t likely to yield lasting improvements that would be commensurate in any way with the investment of American blood and treasure. It is time to scale down our ambitions there and both reduce and redirect what we do.”