Rahmat Gul, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The weekend massacre of Afghan civilians allegedly carried out by a U.S. soldier newly undermined the rationale for a war that a majority of Americans already thought wasn't worth fighting. But the Obama administration and its allies insisted Monday the horrific episode would not speed up plans to pull out foreign forces.
President Barack Obama called the episode "absolutely tragic and heartbreaking," and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called it "inexplicable."
But she told reporters at the United Nations in New York, "This terrible incident does not change our steadfast dedication to protecting the Afghan people and to doing everything we can to build a strong and stable Afghanistan."
Administration officials were reacting to the weekend killing of 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children asleep in their beds. A U.S. Army staff sergeant is accused of slipping away from his base in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar and shooting nearby villagers in their homes.
Despite the deaths, "Our strategic objectives have not changed and they will not change," White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
The killings were the latest in a series of deadly incidents that caused outrage for both Americans and Afghans.
The killing of Americans by their Afghan hosts and of Afghans by the Americans who are supposed to help them have forced an acute examination of a war strategy that calls for Afghans to assume greater responsibility for security through mentoring and "shoulder by shoulder" joint operations.
Obama expanded the Afghan war in the first year of his presidency, saying it was in keeping with U.S. national security interests in contrast to the Iraq war he opposed. But the war, now in its 11th year, remains a stalemate in much of the country, while the al-Qaida terror network that the war is supposed to deter has largely abandoned Afghanistan. U.S. commandos killed Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden last year.
The war is increasingly becoming a political headache for Obama, with American voters appearing frustrated and Republican rivals accusing him of mishandling it.
In results from a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted before the killings and released Sunday, 55 percent of respondents said they think most Afghans oppose what the United States is trying to do there. And 60 percent said the war in Afghanistan has been "not worth fighting."
Many Republicans — who as a party fought against a quick exodus in Iraq and criticized Obama's 2008 presidential campaign promise to end that war — are now reluctant to embrace a continued commitment in Afghanistan.
"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" than planned in 2014, GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum said Monday. He spoke on NBC's "Today" show.
Said GOP presidential contender Newt Gingrich: "I think that we're risking the lives of young men and women in a mission that may, frankly, not be doable."
Still, Mitt Romney said he "wouldn't jump to a new policy based upon some deranged, crazy person."
Under an agreement with the Afghan government, some U.S. and NATO forces are to stay in Afghanistan at least through the end of 2014.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has sought assurances that the foreign forces that support his fragile government will not leave en masse. He is due to leave office in 2014, and both he and Western leaders have said it will take that long to get the Afghan military ready to take on Taliban-led militants who are unlikely to quit the fight.
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