Shootings further dent Americans' support for war

By Anne Gearan

Associated Press

Published: Monday, March 12 2012 6:45 p.m. MDT

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta fields questions from the media on a flight to Kyrgystan, March 12, 2012, regarding the American soldier who is accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians, most of them children, and then burning many of the bodies, on Sunday in southern Kandahar province.

Scott Olson, Pool, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The weekend massacre of Afghan civilians, allegedly carried out by a U.S. soldier, newly undermines 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 "tragic," and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called it "inexplicable."

Obama told a television interviewer Monday that the killings underscore the need to hand over responsibility for security to Afghans. But he said it won't lead to an early withdrawal of U.S. troops.

"I think 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," Obama told Pittsburgh station KDKA. "It makes me more determined to make sure that we're getting our troops home. It's time."

Clinton 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.

In an interview Monday with Denver station KCNC-TV, Obama said, "We've got to make sure that we're caring for our soldiers, caring for our men and women in uniform who are serving so valiantly, and we're caring for their families. And that's why we've actually put more resources into dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries."

"And obviously what happened this weekend was absolutely tragic and heartbreaking. But when you look at what hundreds of thousands of our military personnel have achieved under enormous strain, you can't help but be proud generally."

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking with reporters traveling with him to Kyrgyzstan, said the death penalty is a consideration as the military moves to investigate and possibly put on trial the soldier suspected in the deaths. In his first public remarks on the incident, Panetta said Monday the shootings must not derail the military mission in Afghanistan, and pressure to do so from political leaders in Kabul and Washington must not alter that course.

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.

"It's been a decade, and frankly now that we've gotten bin Laden and we've weakened al-Qaida, we're in a stronger position," to hand over security control to the Afghans, Obama said in the KDKA interview.

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