By Jeremy Herb and Amie Parnes - 03/13/12 12:22 AM EDT
The White House signaled Monday it will not change its timetable for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan after a U.S. soldier allegedly killed 16 civilians there, including nine children.
The administration’s renewed commitment to its strategy in Afghanistan comes as the public’s support for the war is deteriorating.
In a round of interviews with local affiliates from around the country Monday, President Obama said the incident in Afghanistan was “absolutely heartbreaking and tragic.”
In an interview with a CBS affiliate, Obama said that “it’s important for us to make sure that we get out in a responsible way, so that we don’t end up having to go back in.”
“What we don’t want to do is to do it in a way that is just a rush for the exits,” Obama said in an interview with KDKA, the CBS affiliate in Pittsburgh.
The shooting rampage comes on the heels of Quran burnings last month that sparked violent protests and left more than 30 Afghans dead.
Politicians on the right and left have called for a hastened withdrawal from Afghanistan in the wake of last year’s killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. They have also noted congressional testimony from U.S. officials, including former CIA chief and now Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, stating there are fewer than 100 al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan.
Obama’s reelection campaign has touted bin Laden’s demise, and the president cited it Monday as a turning point in the U.S.-led effort against al Qaeda.
“It’s been a decade, and you know, frankly, now that we’ve gotten bin Laden, now that we’ve weakened al Qaeda, we’re in a stronger position to transition than we would have been two or three years ago,” Obama said Monday.
The war, and increasing war fatigue amid U.S. voters, threatens to hamper Obama’s bid for a second term. The president has attracted praise for his handling of the U.S. troop drawdown in Iraq, a key facet of his campaign for the White House four years ago. But the conflict in Afghanistan — deemed the “good war” by some Democrats in 2008 — has been harder to manage.
In a poll conducted by The Washington Post and ABC News before the massacre, 46 percent of those surveyed said they approved of Obama’s handling of the conflict in Afghanistan, while 47 percent disapproved.
Mitt Romney, the GOP front-runner to face Obama in the 2012 general election, has not spelled out his timetable for withdrawal, deferring to “generals in the field.” Earlier this month, he said he doesn’t know how Obama “can sleep at night,” claiming soldiers do not know what their mission is in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
The United States plans to draw down 23,000 surge forces in Afghanistan this year, as NATO forces prepare for a security handoff to the Afghans that is expected by the end of 2014. But White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday that the drawdown issue will be discussed at length when NATO ministers and heads of state meet in May.
Some NATO leaders, such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy, have called for a speedier withdrawal.
In an interview with the Denver CBS affiliate, Obama said, “I think it’s important for us just to make sure that we are not … in Afghanistan longer than we need to be.”
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other administration officials affirmed the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan on Monday.
“We’ve had a difficult and complex few weeks in Afghanistan — that is obvious to everyone,” Clinton said at a United Nations press conference. “But I hope that everyone understands in Afghanistan and around the world that the United States is committed to seeing Afghanistan continue its move toward a stable, secure, prosperous, democratic state.”
In Afghanistan, the shooting threatens to set back already strained relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Karzai said Sunday that the killings “cannot be forgiven,” and some legislators were calling for a public trial in Afghanistan rather than a military commission.
“Afghan blood cannot be spilled in vain,” said Afghan Parliament member Shukria Barakzai, according to The Washington Post. “We really need a proper, very official court for that guy. We really, really need it.”
Afghan tribal elders in Kandahar, where the killings took place, called for calm on Monday, according to Agence France-Presse, while the Taliban vowed revenge against “the sick minded American savages.”
The Army Criminal Investigation Command is investigating the shootings, according to a briefing sent to congressional offices obtained by The Hill.
The soldier being held in custody on the shooting charges is an Army staff sergeant in the 3rd Stryker Brigade based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. He is 38 years old and had previously deployed to Iraq, a U.S. official said.
He deployed to Afghanistan in December, and in February was attached to a Village Stability Platform Belambai, where he supported a special operations force that works together with village elders in remote areas often contested by the Taliban.
Army officials are reviewing his complete deployment history, as well as his medical history, the brief says. The soldier is being held in pretrial custody in Kandahar.
Like the Quran burning incident last month, the killings have sparked fresh questions about the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said on Fox News Sunday that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan might “not be doable.”
“I think the current situation with the president putting a timeline in place has made a very winnable operation very, very difficult,” GOP rival Rick Santorum said Monday.
His statement echoed Republicans in Congress on the Armed Services committees, who have warned about the Taliban regaining control of Afghanistan when NATO departs.
“Despite what has been a tragic few weeks in Afghanistan, we have vital interests there, and a strategy that can work if our commanders are given the resources and time they need,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.).
The United States is in negotiations on a strategic partnership agreement with the Karzai government to keep a presence in Afghanistan after 2014. Carney said Monday that the negotiations continued after the Quran burnings, and that negotiations would continue after the latest incident.
Anthony Cordesman, a Pentagon adviser and analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, “This all adds up to problems which we really have to address and which affect the prospects that we can have a meaningful strategic agreement.”
“The other side of it is that it is just the kind of flag which is going to make more Americans reluctant to stay, reluctant to pay for this war.”