WASHINGTON — Republicans and Democrats alike insist the United States should stay the course in Afghanistan, sticking to President Barack Obama's timetable for withdrawing American troops despite the massacre of Afghan civilians and the burning of Qurans — two offenses blamed on the U.S. military that have stoked anti-American anger.
Key proponents of keeping troops in Afghanistan, like Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., say these tragic incidents shouldn't diminish the American resolve to finish a job begun more than a decade ago.
"When you look at the war through that terrible, violent act — it can seem hopeless and lost," McKeon, the House Armed Services Committee chairman, said of the American soldier suspected of killing 16 Afghan civilians, including women and children. "But the reason we liberated Afghanistan in 2001 was right then, and it is the same reason we fight today to keep it liberated."
McKeon's argument for a continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan more than 10 years after the war began reflects the view of the nation's military commanders and was echoed by several lawmakers, including the Senate's top Democrat and Republican. Support for the current policy puts them at odds with two Republican presidential candidates — Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul — and a growing number of Americans exasperated with the drawn-out conflict and clamoring for the 90,000 troops to come home.
McKeon was scheduled to deliver his remarks in a speech Wednesday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. The Associated Press obtained excerpts of his remarks.
The current U.S. plan calls for a drawdown of 23,000 American troops by the end of September and a complete withdrawal by the end of 2014, when Afghan forces are to take charge of the country's security. After the burning of Qurans by U.S. soldiers last month, anti-U.S. protests and the killing of at least six U.S. troops by Afghan troops, 24 senators, including Republicans Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky, wrote a letter to Obama arguing that U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan was too costly and it was time to bring American forces back.
The massacre of the 16 Afghan civilians has prompted talk of accelerating the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said there has been no change in plans to complete a troop withdrawal by the end of 2014 and Obama has spoken of ending the war "responsibly." Top lawmakers cautioned against a rush to judgment and embraced that approach.
"We're drawing down in Afghanistan and we should stick by the timeline that we have," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said.
In a rare instance of agreement with Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the situation was challenging, "but I think we ought to stick to the plan that's been laid out by the administration."
Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., who has served more than three decades in the Army National Guard, warned against using the weekend attack to abandon the current timetable for ending the combat mission.
"I don't think this issue should step us back from our overall reduction strategy, for which I support the president," Brown told reporters. His Democratic colleague from Massachusetts, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, said the incident should not affect the larger mission.
Still, those who favor a quick withdrawal were more forceful in pressing for an end to U.S. involvement.
"We should have been gone a long time ago," Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said in an interview. "It's time to come home and rebuild America."
In his speech, McKeon argued that the focus on one incident in Afghanistan this past weekend overlooks the daily acts of heroism and courage by American troops that get little attention. He said insurgency is the toughest foe for a democracy, yet the United States can point to numerous achievements in the mission.
"Over the past 18 months, we've knocked the Taliban on their backsides," he said. "So we must be extremely cautious when we discuss pulling surge forces out before we have secured our gains. We can still leave Afghanistan with our heads held high and the Taliban defeated. But it will take resolve and patience."
In a swipe at Obama, McKeon said the president must do a better job of explaining to the American people the importance of the fight against terrorism and describing the courageous acts of the military. McKeon said President George W. Bush delivered more than 40 speeches about the war on terrorism to Obama's three — two in 2009 and one in 2011.
When pressed on those numbers, McKeon's staff said the three speeches did not include Obama's address to the nation announcing that U.S. forces had killed terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
McKeon, who has endorsed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, also criticized the administration's proposed cuts to projected defense spending and vowed to reverse the reductions.
The $614 billion defense budget for 2013 would slash the size of the Army and Marine Corps, cut back on shipbuilding and delay the purchase of some fighter jets and weapons systems. Overall, the budget would provide $525.4 billion in base spending and $88.5 billion for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
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The total is nearly $32 billion less than this year's budget, a reflection of the drawdown in the two conflicts and the call to reduce the nation's deficit. The Congressional Budget Office estimated Tuesday that the government will run a $1.2 trillion deficit for the budget year ending just a few weeks before Election Day, the fourth straight year of trillion-dollar-plus red ink.
The overall defense spending was dictated by the budget agreement that Obama and congressional Republicans reached in August that calls for defense cuts of $487 billion over a decade. McKeon voted for that budget agreement but insisted he will work to reverse the defense cuts.
"I will not be complicit in the dismantling of the Reagan military," he said.