By Jeremy Herb and Carlo Munoz - 03/14/12 01:50 AM EDT
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday backed the Obama administration’s scheduled withdrawal from Afghanistan, a conflict that has reached a critical moment following the alleged slaying of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier.
McConnell emphasized he was speaking only for himself, and his remarks highlighted a divide in his party, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) slamming the administration’s plans to withdraw the 23,000 remaining “surge” troops from Afghanistan by year’s end.
“We ought to stick with the plan that’s been laid out by the administration,” he said.
McCain, who has been one of Obama’s most outspoken critics on foreign policy, blasted the troop drawdown, saying it “discourages our friends and encourages our enemies.”
The administration “continues to talk withdrawal” even as Taliban forces look to leverage recent atrocities by American troops to their advantage, McCain said.
Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan is facing scrutiny from both the left and right following Sunday’s killings and the inadvertent burnings of Qurans last month.
The administration on Tuesday dismissed a report that it is considering pulling out more troops than previously scheduled by 2013, even as questions swirled about the path forward for the more than 10-year-old conflict.
A timetable for pulling out the 68,000 troops that will remain in Afghanistan after the surge has yet to be released publicly. White House press secretary Jay Carney on Tuesday said the post-surge drawdown “will be decided in consultation with NATO ministers and will have everything to do with the successful implementation of the strategy.”
The Republican presidential candidates have criticized Obama’s timetable for drawing down the surge troops, but Rick Santorum on Monday signaled a shift in position, arguing the United States should go either all in or all out.
“We have to either make a decision to make a full commitment, which this president has not done, or we have to decide to get out and probably get out sooner,” Santorum said Monday on NBC’s “Today.”
Newt Gingrich made a more direct shift earlier this week, saying the mission in Afghanistan might not be “doable.”
Senators offered a cautious response to the recent developments Tuesday, with few signs that members were changing positions.
But Sunday’s killings and the Quran-burning incident have renewed calls from some Democrats and a handful of Republicans to hasten the end of U.S. involvement in the country.
A group of 24 senators, including two Republicans, signed a letter last week circulated by Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) calling for a more rapid withdrawal.
“They should have been gone a long time ago,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who signed the Baucus letter. “Having people exposed in the situation that we’re in is just too lethal.”
Other Democrats are standing by the president’s statement Monday that the United States can’t “rush for the exits” in Afghanistan.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday he supports the president’s strategy, telling reporters: “We’re drawing down in Afghanistan, and we should stick by the timeline that we have.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said his position of continued gradual withdrawal of forces after the surge troops leave will be reinforced, likely against the wishes of military commanders who would want troops there longer. Levin warned there could be significant fallout on such a “tragic and huge issue.”
“It’s to be expected,” Levin told reporters. “There will be some fallout, and it’s going to have to be dealt with the best you can in an honest and transparent way.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) took aim at Gingrich’s call for the United States to leave Afghanistan, reiterating the need to keep troops there until the mission is completed.
“If I’ve got to pick between people in the White House and their military experience and Gen. [John] Allen, it’s very easy,” Graham said, referring to the Afghanistan commander. “If I have to pick from Newt Gingrich and Gen. Allen, it’s very easy.”
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) warned against going into “panic mode” over the recent incidents, even if public opinion turns against the war.
“You never should make decisions about war and peace and what you think is the national security interest of your country based on public opinion polls,” Lieberman said. “It would be a mistake to just pick up and run, and the consequences would be disastrous for the Afghan people and of course the U.S. credibility.”
Details continued to stream out Tuesday about the Army staff sergeant allegedly behind the Afghan killings, who has not been named. He had completed three tours in Iraq before going to Afghanistan, and questions were being raised about his mental health.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Monday that the staff sergeant could face the death penalty for the killings.
Senators said there wasn’t enough information available yet to make judgments about what had happened to the soldier that may have caused him to leave his base and target civilians.
“We don’t know. Something snapped inside him, tragically,” Lieberman said.
There was also resistance to heeding calls from the Afghans to try the soldier in an international court.
“Absolutely not,” Graham said in response to questions about an international tribunal. “I trust our system more than the Afghans’ or anybody else in the region.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) emphasized that the U.S. military has jurisdiction over the trial and said that the incident should not change U.S. policy.
“The strategy needs to be what the strategy is and was before this,” Kerry said. “It’s important to move very rapidly, obviously within the law, but very rapidly to appropriately charge any individual, and it’s very important to set up a process in which the Afghan people see it as serious.”
This story was originally posted at 3:15 p.m. and has been updated.