WASHINGTON - During one of Representative Stephen F. Lynch’s early visits to Afghanistan, a crush of angry protesters had to be forced out of the path of his convoy with rifle butts. When his plane approached Iraq in the weeks after the 2003 invasion, enemy mortars were still striking the runway.
The South Boston Democrat, who won his seat in a special election on Sept. 11, 2001, has traveled to the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan 21 times, more often than almost any other member of Congress.
He has often been the only Democrat in the visiting delegation. The fact-finding missions - often into savaged neighborhoods, his blood type written on his body armor in case of attack - helped make him much more supportive of the decadelong war effort in Afghanistan than his Bay State colleagues.
Not anymore. Lynch, frustrated by a lack of progress, is now breaking with the Obama administrationand calling on the president to speed up American withdrawal from Afghanistan by at least a year.
“I don’t think we are going to get there in 2014,’’ said Lynch, speaking about the administration’s timeline for withdrawal. “The pace of progress is so slow that the law of diminishing returns will apply. I don’t think there will be any added measure of benefit that is worth the sacrifice to stay an extra year.’’
In a wide-ranging interview late last month, Lynch said his evolving view was prompted by recent visits and one-to-one talks with service members. Matters were made worse by the violence sparked by the accidental burning of Korans by US service members and then the slaying of 17 Afghan civilians, reportedly by an Army sergeant.
“The recent events have been a real setback,’’ Lynch said in his Capitol Hill office, decorated with photos of some of his travels, including one with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai. “We are going to have to do a reset on our expectations and try something different in terms of helping them get to where they need to be. But I don’t think it involves a massive military presence.’’
The Pentagon has already begun drawing down troops from the surge in force levels Obama ordered in 2009 - which Lynch supported - and will bring home 23,000 more by September. The White House wants to withdraw the remaining 65,000 US service members by the end of 2014 and hand over security to newly trained Afghan forces.
Lynch, considered an authority on the war by his colleagues, serves on a key national security oversight committee and cochairs a congressional task force on terrorism financing.
One of his most pressing concerns is the slow pace of preparing Afghan security forces to carry the battle on their own. While progress is being made, he doubts that US forces staying longer will make much a difference in the end.
“The critical issue there is the lack of literacy among the candidates for border patrol, police, and army,’’ Lynch said. “That has really slowed us down in the number of people we can produce to backfill as we’re leaving.’’
The Obama administration, for its part, insists that the current strategy is working. The key is to stay on that mission, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said after meeting last month with Karzai, who has also called on the United States to speed up its withdrawal plan. “We’re on the right path. I’m absolutely convinced of that. But the key right now is to stick to that path.’’
Lynch, meanwhile, stressed that if he believed Al Qaeda would flock back to Afghanistan after a US withdrawal next year, he would have a different view. He said he is confident that by next year the Afghans will have enough tools to prevent that.
His evolving position brings him more in line with his fellow Massachusetts Democrats, according to Representative Jim McGovern of Worcester, a longtime critic of the war who has traveled to Afghanistan twice.
“More and more people here, with each passing week, are having reservations about continuing in Afghanistan,’’ he said. “Afghanistan is a failed state, and when we leave it is going to be a failed state.’’
More than 1,900 US service members have died in Afghanistan since 2001. Including partner nations, the coalition death toll has been about 3,000, according to icasualties.org, which compiles tallies.
Lynch’s more hawkish views - particularly his 2002 vote to use force to overthrow Saddam Hussein in Iraq - have come under fire from some constituents. In 2010, as he faced a primary challenge from a more liberal Democrat, a website called SteveLynchsBadVotes.com singled out his stance on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lynch’s district has been redrawn to now include Quincy, Weymouth, Hingham, Cohasset, Hull, and Abington. This fall, as he is seeking a fifth full term, he faces a challenge from 30-year-old Republican and Iraq war veteran Matias “Matt’’ Temperley.
Temperley has criticized him on a host of issues, from the economy to entitlement spending. On the war, he believes US troops must remain to “accomplish the mission.’’
But Lynch insists that the facts on the ground now call for a reassessment. He has logged more trips than even Massachusetts’s senior senator, John F. Kerry. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee - and former presidential candidate - has been to Iraq and Afghanistan 17 times, according to his office.
Lynch said he considers it a responsibility to see the war up close as a member of the national security panel of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, where he has focused on rooting out waste in contracting.
His views are “based on being there over and over and over again,’’ he said. “We continue to get more information and data. You talk to the troops. You see what they’re dealing with.’’
Lynch, who was in Afghanistan in November, has insisted on speaking with service members alone - without their commanding officers present - to get their unedited impressions.
He did just that last month when meeting with some of the 300 returning members of the 182d Infantry Regiment of the Massachusetts National Guard in Braintree.
“I heard a lot of negative in terms of progress of operations,’’ he said. “I got some leads in terms of what to look at and who to talk to. So we’ll be following up on that.’’
Lynch is planning his 22d trip to a war zone this year. He hopes an accelerated end to the US presence makes it one of his last.