National News

White House: No change in Afghan strategy

Posted March 12, 2012 1:36 p.m. EDT
Updated March 13, 2012 10:53 a.m. EDT

— The Obama administration said Monday the war strategy in Afghanistan remains intact despite the mass killing of Afghan civilians on Sunday, allegedly by an American soldier.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the episode "inexplicable" but insisted it will not force the U.S. to change course.

"This terrible 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," Clinton told reporters at the United Nations in New York.

Administration officials were reacting to the weekend massacre of 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children asleep in their beds. A U.S. staff sergeant is accused of wandering off his base to two nearby villages and shooting them in the middle of the night, burning some of the bodies.

The incident occurred in the wake of the burning of Muslim holy books at an air base in Afghanistan, which was followed by attacks that killed six American service members.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Washington and its NATO allies remain on course to hand over security control to the Afghans by the end of 2014. Carney said the pace of the troop withdrawal will depend on a variety of factors, but he would not say whether those include the weekend killings.

Carney would not say whether President Barack Obama believes 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.

Thousands of Fort Bragg soldiers are serving in Afghanistan, and many others will be deployed there this year. Several soldiers in Fayetteville declined to discuss Monday the impact of the shooting spree on their mission and their safety.

Retired Air Force Gen. Robert Springer said he believes the incident makes Afghanistan a more dangerous place for U.S. troops.

"I think it does, but I think it's an isolated incident," Springer said. "I think it's a great opportunity for our soldiers and Marines to make the Afghan people really understand that they're there to help."

The accused gunman, whose name hasn't been released, is a Special Forces soldier from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.

"We're talking about one individual out of 100,000 men and women that are on the ground in Afghanistan today. So, it truly is the exception," Springer said.

Pentagon press secretary George Little called the killings a deplorable but "isolated incident."

Little told reporters there is every indication that the killings were perpetrated by a single individual "acting on his own."

Little said he could offer no explanation for how or why the killings took place. He said the soldier, now in custody, had served three tours of duty in Iraq, and this was his first tour in Afghanistan.

Little said the killing has had "no demonstrable impact at this stage" on the relationship with the Afghan military.

"This is having no impact on the war effort at this time," he said. "he reality here is that the fundamental strategy is not changing. There has been a series of troubling incidents recently, but 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."

Springer said it's too early to know if there were any rad flags that the military could have picked up on that might have prevented the massacre.

"Does the immediate leadership know about each of their individuals?" he said. "You have the squad leaders. You have the platoon leaders. You have the company commanders. At least at that level, they ought to know something about the personalities and the potential for these things, but my take is you can't know everything."

Clinton said the Obama administration regrets the killings.

"We recognize that an incident like this is inexplicable and will certainly cause many questions to be asked. But I hope that everyone understands in Afghanistan and around the world that the United States is committed to seeing Afghanistan continue its move toward a stable, secure, prosperous, democratic state," Clinton said.