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Senior Republicans on Tuesday rebuffed calls from some in their party to reassess the war in Afghanistan in the wake of a series of setbacks, while the White House said it is staying the course and reminding voters that the course is to bring the troops home.
Setbacks — including the reported massacre of women and children by a single U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, the continued deaths of allied soldiers and riots in the wake of the inadvertent burning of Qurans — have raised new questions about the role of U.S. troops more than a decade into the war. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) questioned whether the war was “doable” on “Fox News Sunday,” and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) on the “Today” show on Monday called for a reassessment in the wake of the massacre. Now Republican hawks on Capitol Hill are worried that some in their party are playing to the public in the heat of a campaign instead of putting national security first, while longtime GOP critics of the war see the momentum on their side.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), in particular, ripped Gingrich.
“I’ve been very disappointed in Newt Gingrich’s statements,” Graham said. “We’ve got enough people in politics who are looking to polls and blowing with the wind. I’m not interested in nominating someone who doesn’t understand the strategic importance of Afghanistan.”
Gen. John Allen’s plan to withdraw troops and transition to Afghan control by 2014 is “doable,” Graham contended.
“I think Republicans are making emotional decisions,” he said. “Being war-weary is understandable. Republicans and Democrats, everyone in America is war-weary, but the enemy is not. ... If we speed up withdrawal because of political concerns in November, then you are undercutting the general and we’re going to fail.”
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) also strongly disagreed with Gingrich.
“It may sound great in an election year and [makes] a good sound bite, but it is not the sound strategic decision to make when we’re looking at our national security interests,” she said. “We cannot afford to have Afghanistan again become a launching pad for terrorist attacks.”
However, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who along with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) signed a letter urging an accelerated withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, said the push to keep the war going is waning in Republican ranks.
Paul cited public opinion polls showing that Republican voters increasingly oppose the war and noted Gingrich’s change of heart as well.
“The sooner we come home the better,” Paul said. “They are an unappreciative ally, if they are an ally. ... We have won the war, we liberated the Afghan people 10 years ago, we killed bin Laden, we disrupted the terrorists, and I see no purpose in staying. We are throwing good money after bad.”
Paul said voters are also worried about spending money rebuilding other countries at a time of huge deficits and unmet needs at home.
“We have enormous deficits here. We have bridges that go unrepaired in Kentucky, and we’re sending money overseas,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch
McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) both said they back the administration’s plans in Afghanistan.
“It’s important to remember the reason we went there and what happened when the Taliban was running the country,”
McConnell said. “I know it’s been a very challenging period, but I think we ought to stick with the plan that’s been laid out by the administration.”
The White House is also contending that the recent setbacks won’t change its larger strategy — which is to leave the country by 2014.
“This president is committed to ending the war in Afghanistan responsibly,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said.
Carney, however, denied a report in the New York Times that the White House was floating specific plans for additional drawdowns of troops after the removal of surge troops is completed at the end of September.
He said a decision on the pace of further withdrawals was not imminent.
Obama decried the “murder” of women and children on Tuesday. And he made clear, in a series of interviews Monday with local television stations, that he is not on board with a run for the exits but that he also believes the recent incidents support transitioning power and authority to the Afghans.
“In the same way I brought our troops home from Iraq, I’m determined to bring them home from Afghanistan,” Obama told WFTV in Orlando, Fla.
Other senior administration officials said Tuesday that Obama’s stance will compare favorably to top Republicans — such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — who have opposed having timelines for withdrawing troops.
The White House doesn’t see Romney’s attacks on Afghan policy as a vulnerability in the general election, contending that the public supports Obama’s position of winding down the war instead of an open-ended commitment. Plus, Gingrich and Santorum’s comments could mute Romney’s criticisms, should the former governor become the GOP nominee.