Violence will not shift US Afghan policy

The Obama administration is sending a clear message to the world and Capitol Hill that it will not change its strategy of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan despite anti-American violence that has erupted there in recent days.

Officials from the White House and Pentagon on Monday said they intend to stay the course, even as the unrest showed signs the issue could turn into an election-year problem for a president whose foreign policy record has been seen as a political strength. 

The turmoil threatens to tarnish that record, and Republicans are ready to pounce. 

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“They have one talking point, which they cite over and over again, which is the death of Osama bin Laden,” former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie said on MSNBC Monday. 

Gillespie said he thought that was the right decision by President Obama, “but that does not a foreign policy make. And I do think that the critique here for the president shows that he is very vulnerable on this issue area.”

Two U.S. officers were killed in the Afghan Interior Ministry over the weekend and the Taliban claimed credit for a Monday car bombing that killed nine Afghans. The violence has prompted Republicans to criticize Obama for planning to pull out U.S. troops too quickly, as well as for apologizing for the Quran burning that started the unrest.

Obama is also feeling pressure from his left flank, with some Democrats, including Senate Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), calling on Obama to speed up the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“At this moment in time, it appears we’re a long way from having a trusting and working relationship,” Durbin said on CNN Monday. “We need to start gearing ourselves into a new position, bringing our troops home.”

Press secretary Jay Carney said at the White House on Monday that the administration would not be moving up the troop pull-out date from Afghanistan, calling the deadly incidents over the weekend “isolated.”

“The No. 1 priority, the reason why U.S. troops are in Afghanistan in the first place, is to disrupt, dismantle, and ultimately defeat al Qaeda,” Carney told reporters in a briefing that focused predominately on Afghanistan.

Carney said the “original objective” in Afghanistan was not “to build a Jeffersonian democracy.”

“The original objective — the reason why we send U.S. troops to fight, and in some cases die, in Afghanistan was because we were attacked. … And the president was very clear that he wanted to make sure that our policy — the reason why we were there — remained the same, and that we were focused on al Qaeda,” Carney said.

The White House spokesman said the job in Afghanistan isn’t yet complete and that the mission “remains vital.”

“We can’t forget what the mission is,” Carney said. “The need to prevent Afghanistan from being a haven for al Qaeda to launch attacks against the United States remains.”

At the same time, Pentagon press secretary George Little echoed Carney’s remarks on Monday, saying that while the situation in Afghanistan has been tense, “the fundamentals of our strategy remain sound.”

“We’re not going to let the events of the past week, which are regrettable and unfortunate and tragic, influence the long-horizon view that we’re taking with respect to our partnership with Afghanistan and to our enduring work there,” Little said at a Pentagon briefing.

The president, who plans to withdraw the final 23,000 surge troops in the fall, wants to tout the end of the Afghanistan War in his reelection campaign.

But it might not be that easy, observers say.

The situation in Afghanistan is “a mess, and it’s hard to get out of a mess looking good,” said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University.

Jillson said the president is “in a difficult political situation” because it’s become increasingly difficult to sell the war to “a tired American public.”

And, Jillson added, Obama “can’t look like he’s being chased out.”

The continued violence has made lawmakers raise fresh questions about Obama’s strategy to draw down troops and hand over security control to the Afghans in 2014.

“When the president gives timelines, not based on conditions on the ground, that’s the thing that puts us in jeopardy,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said on CNN Monday. “Instead of following timelines, we ought to make these changes based on conditions on the ground recommended by our leaders, General [John] Allen and those who are in charge over there.”

McKeon plans to introduce a bill this week that would bar private contractors and Afghans in a new private security force from guarding U.S. bases in Afghanistan. The bill would make it more difficult for U.S. forces to withdraw from Afghanistan, as a Pentagon official told Congress last month that an additional 20,000 troops would be required for the security job contractors currently perform.

The issue has quickly become a talking point for the Republican presidential candidates, who have slammed Obama’s strategy.

On Sunday, Mitt Romney bashed Obama for planning to withdraw troops this year.

“I think the president made an enormous error by announcing the withdrawal date of our surge forces during the fighting season,” he said.