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 cautioned against a "rush for the exits," telling television interviewers that the killings underscored the need to hand over responsibility for security to Afghans. He called the episode tragic, but said he would stick to his plan to gradually withdraw forces over the next two years.
"Keep in mind that I have put us on a path where we're going to have this war over by the end of 2014, that our troops will be coming out, but we'll be coming out responsibly," Obama said in an interview with KABC in Los Angeles.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the killings "inexplicable."
Speaking at the United Nations in New York, Clinton vowed that the 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."
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. The house-by-house attack killed 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children asleep in their beds. The Pentagon offered no explanation of a possible motive, and would not release the soldier's name.
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.
Despite the deaths, "Our strategic objectives have not changed and they will not change," White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
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.
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 an interview with Pittsburgh station KDKA.
The war is increasingly becoming a political headache for Obama, with American voters showing increased frustration 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."
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.
Carney would not say whether Obama worries that the killings increase security risks for Americans in Afghanistan. The United States has about 90,000 troops in the country; that number is scheduled to drop to 68,000 by the end of September.
Military movements were kept to a minimum Monday near the shooting site as commanders waited to see how the local population reacts, but there were no huge protests in the country. U.S. officials were worried that the Taliban would stoke public outrage this week in an attempt to turn the regular Friday prayer sessions into mass demonstrations.
"We're fully aware that this has the possibility of raising ire and emotions in a place where tensions are already running high," said State Department spokesman Mark Toner. "We would appeal for calm. "
Like other U.S. officials, Toner promised a thorough U.S. investigation and prosecution.
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."
Even before the shootings, anti-Americanism was boiling in Afghanistan over U.S. troops burning Muslim holy books, including Qurans, last month on an American base. The burnings came to light soon after a video purporting to show four Marines urinating on Taliban corpses was posted on the Internet in January.
Americans, meanwhile, were outraged by the killings of American military advisers by Afghan soldiers. In the month of February, there were at least seven cases of Americans killed by Afghan soldiers — more than died in combat.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said the weekend killing spree has not changed the U.S. approach to the war. He said the incident should be seen as an aberration.
"This is having no impact on the war effort at this time," he said. "No one should think that we are steering away from our partnership with the Afghan people, from our partnership with the Afghan security forces and from our commitment to prosecute the war effort."
But the strategy is already changing in small ways, with plans to shift combat operations to the Afghans earlier than once envisioned and some of the NATO partners largely recruited to the war by the U.S. increasingly entertaining an earlier exit.
Many war analysts predict a further telescoping of the withdrawal calendar after a NATO summit in May. Obama is hosting that meeting, in his adopted home town of Chicago.
Some of Obama's close advisers, including Vice President Joe Biden, opposed the large troop buildup Obama authorized in 2009. Obama has heard from advisers and analysts who remain ambivalent about whether a large U.S. "footprint" may do more harm than good, by presenting a target for Afghan anger and feeding the insurgent narrative that the Americans are colonial invaders.
The U.S. and Afghanistan are currently struggling to frame a security agreement that would govern how smaller numbers of U.S. forces can operate in the country after 2014, when the mission would narrow to hunting terrorists, conducting specialized military training and keeping an eye on neighboring Iran. The U.S. envisions a force of perhaps 20,000, according to military officials.
The U.S. role in civilian deaths has been a major sticking point in negotiations.
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor traveling with Panetta and Matthew Lee, Robert Burns, Julie Pace and Kimberly Dozier in Washington contributed to this report.