WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is sticking determinedly to its stay-the-course message in Afghanistan despite a week of anti-American riots, the point-blank killing of U.S. military advisers and growing election-year demands to bring the troops home.
In an echo of the Bush administration on continuing the unpopular war in Iraq, the White House and Pentagon insisted Monday that the wave of violence against Americans will not derail the war strategy in Afghanistan or speed up the calendar for bringing American forces home.
"We work alongside thousands of Afghans every single day to ensure a better future for the Afghan people. And nothing that has happened over the past week is going to deter us from that goal," Pentagon spokesman George Little said. "We're making progress. We have put the enemy on its heels in many parts of the country."
Administration spokesmen were at pains to answer the larger question of whether to keep fighting a war that has lost support not only in the United States but also among the people the U.S. has pledged to protect. The perception that Afghans are ungrateful for U.S. sacrifice and are turning on their American advisers complicates President Barack Obama's plan to ease out of combat against Taliban extremists over the next two years.
Under current strategy, tens of thousands of U.S. forces will remain in Afghanistan at least through the end of this year and Afghan forces would have full control of the country's security by the end of 2014. Both Democrats and Republicans have said the timetable should move up.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the violence will not mean faster troop withdrawal. He pointed to Obama's rationale for expanding the war early in his presidency.
"The No. 1 priority, the reason why U.S. troops are in Afghanistan in the first place, is to disrupt, dismantle and ultimately, ultimately defeat al-Qaida," Carney said.
Administration officials said they believe Afghan President Hamid Karzai's fragile government could collapse and the Taliban would regain power if the U.S. were to walk away. Their argument recalls the Bush administration insistence at the height of violence in Iraq that the war was in U.S. national security interests and that abandoning a commitment to stabilize the country would squander painful U.S. sacrifices.
But even in Iraq, cases of supposedly friendly forces turning their guns on American troops were very rare.
As with Iraq, voters in the U.S. are questioning the wisdom of a long-running conflict they once largely supported. This time, with the U.S. election campaign well under way, discontent with the war in Afghanistan is compounded by its high monetary cost at a time of tightening budgets.
A Pew Research Center poll indicates that more than half, 56 percent, of Americans want troops removed from Afghanistan as soon as possible, while just 38 percent believe the U.S. should stay until Afghanistan is stabilized. The poll was taken just before Obama's State of the Union address in late January.
Democratic Senate Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Monday the United States should move faster to bring forces home now.
"The sooner the better," Durbin said on MSNBC. "The president is right to start bringing the troops home. I would say to him: Do it more quickly."
Although a military spokesman said protests over the mistaken U.S. burning of Muslim religious material are ebbing, the depth of anger at U.S. forces was evident in a suicide bombing at one base and the possible attempted poisoning of American soldiers by a kitchen worker at another.
More than 30 people have died in clashes since it became known last week that copies of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, and other religious materials were thrown into a fire pit used to burn garbage at a U.S. base near Kabul.
Obama has apologized for what he said was a mistake.
Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney told "Fox News Sunday" that for many in the U.S., the apology "sticks in their throat" after so much American sacrifice in Afghanistan.
GOP candidate Newt Gingrich said Monday the U.S. presence in Afghanistan has become a liability.
"There's some problems where what you have to do is say, 'You know, you're going to have to figure out how to live your own miserable life,'" Gingrich said. "You clearly don't want to learn from me how to be un-miserable. The Karzai government is playing us for fools."
The politics of the unpopular war helped drive a forceful Washington response on Monday.
"I would simply say that there is an agreement, I think, with (Democrats), but broadly the American people, that we should not stay in Afghanistan one day longer than is necessary" Carney said.
"The president has a policy — not a slogan, not a political opinion, but a policy in place," to ensure that, Carney said.
The goal of keeping al-Qaida at bay is larger than the short-term ups and downs in a difficult war, Carney said. The war is worth fighting because the job of defeating the terror network is not complete, he said.
Durbin, among other Democrats, has questioned whether al-Qaida poses enough of a threat in Afghanistan to justify a U.S. troop commitment currently around 90,000. U.S. intelligence agencies agree that al-Qaida has only a minuscule presence in Afghanistan today, more than 10 years after the U.S. invasion toppled the Taliban government that sheltered al-Qaida leaders.
Al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden's death at U.S. hands last year helped scatter the group's remaining operations along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
"It remains absolutely a national security priority of the United States to ensure that we defeat al-Qaida, which is why we are in Afghanistan to begin with," Carney said, although he did not list specific milestones that have not been met.
Pentagon officials conceded that after the killings of two U.S. officers inside the Afghan interior ministry on Saturday, the U.S. is not ready to allow its advisers to return to work at the Afghan offices. NATO, France, Britain and the U.S. pulled their advisers from the ministries after the shootings, which remain unsolved.
The high-ranking officers were killed at their desks in the heavily secured ministry building. The remains of the two officers will be flown to Dover Air Force Base, Del., officials said Monday. They identified the two officers as Army Maj. Robert J. Marchanti II, of Baltimore, and Air Force Lt. Col. John D. Loftis, of Paducah, Ky.
Two other U.S. servicemen were killed last week in apparent retaliation for the Quran burnings.
Of 52 U.S. and NATO troops killed this year in Afghanistan, nine were apparently killed by Afghan forces or impersonators.
Associated Press writer Ken Thomas contributed to this report.