Sen. Carl Levin's announcement today that he opposes sending more U.S. combat troops to Afghanistan is a big deal, but President Obama's Afghan policy faces even greater challenges in Congress, where there is growing group of Democrats who aren't just opposed to sending more troops but would like to reduce the amount already there.
Levin's position is more nuanced. The Michigan Democrat said he opposes more combat troops but is open to sending more U.S. trainers.
And he doesn't rule out send more combat troops in the future -- after first increasing the size of the Afghanistan security forces. But if you look at Levin's reasoning, he is ultimately making a case of shrinking the U.S. military presence because, he argues, it is counterproductive.
"The larger our own military footprint there, the more our enemies can seek to drive a wedge between us and the Afghan population, spreading the falsehood that we seek to dominate a Muslim nation," Levin said, echoing the case he and others made against the surge in Iraq.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi of California was more unequivocal when she ruled out sending more troops -- not just more combat troops -- on Thursday, saying, "I don't think there's a great deal of support for sending more troops to Afghanistan -- in the country or the Congress."
She was actually understating the political sentiment among House Democrats. There is growing sentiment among the liberals -- who are both Pelosi's and Obama's base of support -- to force on Obama something he tried to force on President Bush in Iraq: a timetable for withdrawal.
The last battle over war funding was a tough one. After some hard lobbying by liberal Democrats, the House narrowly approved more funding for the war in June. At the time, 32 Democrats voted no, but many of those who voted yes suggested they wouldn't support the war for long. As Rep. Anthony Weiner D-N.Y., put it at the time, "We are in the process of wrapping up the wars. The president needed our support, but the substance still sucks."
You can expect liberals in the House to argue for timetable that isn't flexible.
Obama can count on Republican support and may need it. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has gone out of his way to praise Obama's handling of Afghanistan, calling it a continuation of the Bush policy. This, of course, only further infuriates liberal Democrats.
Obama's former rival in the presidential race, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also expressed his support for troop increase.
"I believe it is a false choice to try to grow the Afghan national army while holding back on any additional U.S. combat troops," McCain said on the Senate floor today, reminding his colleagues about "the lesson of Iraq."
"It's mentorship at every level ring including partnership in joint operations with U.S. forces that will build a robust and capable Afghan military and pave the way for our eventual successful exit from Afghanistan. And to do this, we need more U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan," McCain said.
As for public opinion, the latest ABC News poll on the question suggests that Pelosi is correct and that Obama will have to work hard to build public support for the war effort. In the poll, released Aug. 17, 51 percent said the war wasn't worth fighting. And those favoring reducing troop levels (45 percent) far outnumbered those favoring an increase (24 percent).