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News Analysis

Deaths of civilians complicate Afghanistan mission

WASHINGTON — The decadelong war in Afghanistan has spiraled into a series of US missteps and violent outbreaks that have left few ardent political supporters.

After NATO detained a US soldier Sunday for allegedly killing 16 Afghan villagers, Republicans and Democrats alike pointed to the stress on troops after years of fighting and reiterated calls for American forces to leave by the end of 2014 as promised, if not sooner.

Afghanistan, once the must-fight war for America, is becoming a public relations headache for the nation’s leaders, especially for President Obama, with many American voters, legislators, and political candidates questioning the continued value of the mission.

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“It’s just not a good situation,’’ said Senate majority leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada. “Our troops are under such tremendous pressure in Afghanistan. It’s a war like no other war we’ve been involved in. . . . We’re moving out, as the president said. I think it’s the right thing to do.’’

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.

Following the shootings and the recent burning of Muslim holy books at a US military base, GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum said Monday, “Given all of these additional problems, 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 2014.

“There’s something profoundly wrong with the way we’re approaching the whole region, and I think it’s going to get substantially worse, not better,’’ said Newt Gingrich, another GOP presidential hopeful. “I think that we’re risking the lives of young men and women in a mission that may, frankly, not be doable.’’

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American voters appear frustrated as well. In results from a Washington Post-ABC News poll 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.’’

Obama and top US officials quickly condemned Sunday’s attack and offered their condolences to families of the victims. Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, both vowing to hold any perpetrators accountable.

Their statements stopped short of a full apology but appeared aimed at warding off any retaliatory attacks, like those seen recently after US officials acknowledged the burning of Korans at an air base in Afghanistan. Six US service members were killed in attacks after that revelation.

“This deeply appalling incident in no way represents the values of [US and coalition troops] or the abiding respect we feel for the Afghan people,’’ said General John Allen, the top US commander in Afghanistan. “Nor does it impugn or diminish the spirit of cooperation and partnership we have worked so hard to foster with the Afghan National Security Forces.’’

But the damage is probably inevitable. Karzai called the shooting an “assassination’’ and “an intentional killing of innocent civilians’’ that could not be forgiven.

Although US and NATO officials said the killings would not alter coalition strategy or the timetable for withdrawal, increasing tensions could be enough to raise a key question among Obama’s top advisers as the fall election nears: Should Obama press NATO to speed up its scheduled transfer of security responsibility to the Afghan government at the end of 2014?

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Panetta has already said he hopes Afghans will assume the lead combat role across the country by mid-2013, with US and other NATO troops remaining in smaller numbers to perform numerous support missions. US and Afghan officials have said they want a strategic partnership agreement signed by the time a NATO summit convenes in Chicago in May.

Senator John S. McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, pleaded for public patience on the war.

“I understand the frustration, and I understand the anger and the sorrow,’’ McCain said. “I also understand and we should not forget that the attacks on the United States of America on 9/11 originated in Afghanistan. And if Afghanistan dissolves into a situation where the Taliban were able to take over a chaotic situation, it could easily return to an Al Qaeda base for attacks on the United States of America.’’