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Politico - Afghan Slayings Don't Change War Debate on Hill

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By Seung Min Kim

The slaying of 16 Afghan civilians and growing public fatigue with the decadelong war showed no signs Monday of denting Republican insistence in Congress that American troops should remain in the troubled country until a scheduled 2014 withdrawal.

While lawmakers condemned the massacre by a U.S. soldier and called for a quick investigation, the tragedy hasn't so far reshaped the debate on Capitol Hill, where foreign policy and national security matters have largely remained out of the spotlight as lawmakers focus on the economy and yawning federal deficit.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who favors a more robust involvement in Afghanistan, said that his views hadn't changed despite recent events. He faulted President Barack Obama for diminishing public backing for the war.

"In both Iraq and Afghanistan, this president has been AWOL from the public debate about why we're there, what it's going to need to achieve our mission and to try in any way to galvanize public opinion around the mission," Kyl said off the Senate floor on Monday. "He's been apologetic, he's been only willing to provide the minimal number of forces necessary -- and many would argue an insufficient number -- and it's no wonder that the American people are becoming less supportive if the commander in chief himself appears to be unsupportive."

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said that despite recent events, U.S. military commanders still need time and resources for the country's strategy there to succeed.

"The troop surge has made significant progress and we must not undercut the important missions our troops will conduct this summer to expand that progress," McKeon, a close ally of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), said in a statement. "Now is not the time to abandon hope and freedom's cause, but to persevere."

The Taliban vowed to avenge the 16 deaths -- including nine children and three women -- in southern Afghanistan. Sunday's massacre ratcheted up tensions already heightened by the Quran burnings at Bagram Air Base last month, which prompted attacks that killed U.S. soldiers and led to violent protests across the country.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday reflected the increasing war weariness of the nation. Sixty percent of those surveyed said the war in Afghanistan has not been worth fighting, and 54 percent said troops should be withdrawn even if the Afghan army isn't sufficiently trained.

Pollsters said the latest numbers mark the first time in at least five years that Republicans -- who have largely backed the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan -- were split on whether the war was worth it.

The Obama administration pledged last summer to withdraw 33,000 troops by the end of this year and to remove all troops by 2014. White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday that the shootings wouldn't alter that timetable.

"I'm confident that we believe that our presence there is having the desired effect in the implementation and achievement of our objectives, the implementation of the plan and the achievement of the objectives," Carney said.

Whether the shooting rampage would significantly ramp up calls on Capitol Hill to speed up troop withdrawal -- a cause that has united many Democrats and some Republicans -- remains to be seen. But war fatigue that is clearly weighing on the public could add extra pressure for lawmakers to respond.

Even before Sunday's slayings, two dozen senators from both parties had sent Obama a letter calling on him to bring the U.S. troops home, declaring that the military has mostly accomplished its objectives for the initial invasion of Afghanistan and that it was too costly to sustain a high level of involvement there.

"Incidents such as this underscore the fact that after 10 years of war, it is time to bring our troops home as soon as we responsibly can," Washington Rep. Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), another Armed Services panel lawmaker, called the slayings "jaw-dropping" and warned that the incident could further imperil the already unstable country.

"I reiterate my call for an accelerated drawdown in Afghanistan," Larsen added. "Our military efforts have largely driven Al Qaeda from that country. It is time for our troops to come home and our focus to turn to training Afghan troops and government to take over operations."

Democratic leaders in Congress have mostly supported Obama on Afghanistan. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told CNN Sunday that he believed the country was "on the right track to get out of Afghanistan just as soon as we can" and that the country would be stabilized by the time U.S. troops leave in 2014.

In her statement Monday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declined to weigh in on the administration's strategy and the pace of the withdrawal, instead focusing on condemning the shootings.

"Our military has made enormous sacrifices to serve bravely in Afghanistan, and this isolated incident must not detract from their service and valor," Pelosi said. "We must get the facts as quickly as possible; those responsible will be held accountable."

But Arizona Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, pointed to an Afghan government that is still plagued with problems of corruption.

"I understand the anger and the sorrow," McCain said on "Fox News Sunday." "I also understand -- and we should not forget -- that attacks on the United States of America on 9/11 originated in Afghanistan. If Afghanistan dissolved into a situation where the Taliban were able to take over or a chaotic situation, it could easily return to an Al Qaeda-base for attacks on the United States of America."

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said there's "little doubt" that the public is questioning the ongoing U.S. commitment in Afghanistan.

"However, the acts of one solitary and independently acting soldier," she told POLITICO, "are certainly not indicative of the caring nature of the majority of our armed forces patriots."

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