Republican rift sparked by Afghan war

Just months before the US mid-term elections, the Republican Party is grappling with an unexpected internal ruckus triggered by its chairman, Michael Steele, after he suggested the Afghan war was of "Obama's choosing" and wasn't one that the country ever really "wanted to engage in".

The comments, which insinuated that the conflict is unwinnable, are wrecking party unity at a time when it is trying to build momentum to regain seats in Congress on polling day in November and sidetrack the programme of President Barack Obama. Several of its leading lights – not least among them Senator John McCain – reacted blisteringly.

"I think those statements are wildly inaccurate and there's no excuse for them," Mr McCain said while visiting US troops in Afghanistan. "The fact is that I think Mr Steele is going to have to assess whether he can still lead the Republican Party as chairman of the Republican National Committee and make an appropriate decision."

While Americans enjoyed the last hours of the Independence Day holiday weekend yesterday, it was unclear whether Mr Steele – who has generated controversy in his party before – would indeed resign or try to weather the tempest. He has a stubborn streak and Democrats may hope that he stays in the post because he has served as an easy target for vilification.

Those arguing that he should step down have included the conservative commentator and editor of the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol. "One thing as a Republican I think Republicans can be proud of is that we don't politicise foreign wars," he said. "And unfortunately, Michael Steele politicised this in a way that doesn't reflect the view of the huge majority of Republicans. I think it would be better if he went."

Liz Cheney, the former State Department official and daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, concurred. But not everyone in the party has been as quick to abandon their own chairman. "Chairman Steele should not back off. He is giving the country – especially young people – hope as he speaks truth about this war," Ron Paul, libertarian member of Congress from Texas and opponent of the war, countered.

Mr Steele made the remarks at a fund-raising event in Connecticut. "This was a war of Obama's choosing. This is not something the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in," he said. If [Obama]'s such a student of history, has he not understood that you know that's the one thing you don't do; is engage in a land war in Afghanistan? All right, because everyone who has tried, over a thousand years of history, has failed."

For the White House, any joy at seeing the Republicans squabble will be short-lived; discord in the opposition party over Afghanistan – and argument over whether or not the war there can even be won – in the end feeds into the growing feeling of dismay about the conflict among Democrats and in the country at large.

Even as General David Petraeus begins his new job as commander of US troops in Afghanistan, signs of rebellion are growing in the ranks of the president's own party. Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, last week led an effort to attach tough conditions to a new bill authorising spending on the war. Her initiative failed, but was indicative of growing impatience with the conflict.