By Jeremy Herb - 02/26/12 06:40 PM EST
Republicans on Sunday continued their criticism of President Obama’s apology for the Quran burnings in Afghanistan, and cautioned that the widespread protests, which have left four Americans dead this week, should not undermine the future U.S. role there.
Republican hopeful Rick Santorum said that Obama's apology for the Quran burning "shows weakness" and GOP candidate Mitt Romney accused Obama of making “enormous errors” in Afghanistan.
Romney and other leading Republicans though warned on Sunday that the Afghan protests and attacks — which included 2 U.S. officers shot at the Afghan Interior Ministry Saturday — did not mean the Obama administration should speed up its withdrawal in the decade-long war.
“We don't want to see Afghanistan once again return to a Taliban-dominated nation with al Qaeda and other training camps coming into the nation,” Romney said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“I think the president made an enormous error by announcing the withdrawal date of our surge forces during the fighting season,” he added.
Obama’s Afghanistan apology has been the latest foreign policy decision to spark Republican attacks, as Obama’s opponents seek to weaken the president in an area where he can point to numerous accomplishments.
When Obama campaign adviser Roberts Gibbs was asked about Gingrich’s criticism on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, for instance, Gibbs first brought up the successful operation to assassinate Osama bin Laden.
“As you know, and your viewers know, Osama bin Laden is dead,” Gibbs said. “And what the president's trying to do now is get us to a point where we can hand off the security of Afghanistan to the Afghans and that we can bring our troops home.”
Protests over the Quran burning continued for the sixth day on Sunday in Afghanistan, where more than 30 have been killed this week, including the four Americans.
Another seven U.S. soldiers were wounded Sunday when a grenade was thrown into their base in northern Afghanistan, Reuters reported.
Obama apologized in a letter sent this week to Afghan President Hamid Karzai for the Quran burnings, which he said was an “inadvertent” error.
Afghanistan’s defense minister apologized to U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for the killing of the two U.S. officers in the Interior Ministry on Saturday. Karzai on Sunday repeated his call for Afghans not to retaliate with violence.
NATO forces recalled their forces from Afghan ministries in the wake of the Interior shooting. Obama called Afghan commander Gen. John Allen Saturday to discuss the situation, and he “thanked General Allen for all of the measures he is taking to protect our servicemembers and civilians in Afghanistan and to encourage calm,” according to a White House readout of the call.
The White House has defended Obama’s Quran burning apology, saying it was done to help protect the safety of U.S. forces and was similar to an apology President Bush issued to the Iraqi president in 2008 for another Quran incident.
But Santorum said on ABC’s “This Week” that the apology should never have happened.
“It was a mistake,” Santorum said. “There was nothing deliberately done wrong here. This was something that happened as a mistake. Killing Americans in uniform is not a mistake. It was something that deliberate.”
Romney said that “for a lot people, this is, it sticks in their throat, the idea that we are there, having lost thousands of individuals through casualty and death.”
“We've made an enormous contribution to help the people there achieve freedom and for us to be apologizing at a time like this is something which is very difficult for the American people to countenance,” Romney said.
The protests over the burning of Qurans have dealt another setback to NATO forces in Afghanistan, who are planning to turn over control of security to Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
The situation has once again raised questions about whether it’s time for the United States to leave Afghanistan after a decade-long conflict.
U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that the latest upheaval is not reason for early withdrawal.
“This is not the time to decide that we're done here,” Crocker said. “We have got to redouble our efforts. We've got to create a situation in which al Qaeda is not coming back.”
Romney, along with Republican hawks in the Senate, echoed that sentiment on Sunday, saying that troops must stay long enough to ensure the Taliban does not return to power.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who defeated Romney in the 2008 presidential primary and is now backing him, said Sunday that the United States needs to “take the long view” in Afghanistan.
“If Afghanistan reverts to a chaotic situation, you will see al Qaeda come back and it again be a base eventually of attacks on the United States of America,” McCain said on CNN.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who appeared with McCain, said he wants to see a force remain in Afghanistan after 2014 of around 20,000 troops, so that the Taliban will “be permanently defeated and “the Afghan security forces will always have the help of the U.S., American military to ensure that Afghanistan never fails.”