- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 26, 2012

Even as another day of anti-U.S. violence saw seven NATO troops hurt in Afghanistan, the Obama administration on Sunday vowed to remain heavily involved in the country and defended the president’s handling of a crisis sparked by the inadvertent burning by American troops of Muslim holy books.

Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said that despite a week of attacks and violent protests, there are no plans to accelerate withdrawal from the country, as some Republicans have suggested.

Instead, the U.S. needs to “redouble” efforts to create a situation where the country will no longer harbor al Qaeda and other terrorists, he told CNN.

“I think we need to let things calm down and return to a more normal atmosphere, and then get on with business,” Mr. Crocker said. “These are terrible tragedies and very worthy of the condemnation they received, but this is not the time to decide that we’re done here.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said critics of Mr. Obama’s apology for the Koran burnings run the risk of further stirring the unrest that has left more than 30 people dead, including two U.S. military advisers, and prompted NATO, Britain and France to pull back personnel working inside Afghan ministries.

“I find it somewhat troubling that our politics would inflame such a dangerous situation in Afghanistan,” Mrs. Clinton told CNN.

But Republican presidential candidates on Sunday continued to slam the president’s apology, with former Sen. Rick Santorum calling it a sign of “weakness,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich saying that George Washington would not have apologized for an incident that led to the killing of young Americans, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney saying it’s hard for the American people to swallow.

“I think for a lot people, this is, it sticks in their throat, the idea that we are there, having lost thousands of individuals through casualty and death,” Mr. Romney told Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday.”

Protests in the war-torn country showed little sign of receding on Sunday, as demonstrators hurled grenades at a U.S. base in northern Afghanistan and a gunbattle left two Afghans dead and seven NATO troops injured, according to Associated Press reports.

Despite Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s tenuous relationship with the U.S., Mr. Crocker praised Afghan security forces, saying they have also been working to quell the demonstrations and defend Americans — sometimes at the loss of their own lives. He also noted that Mr. Karzai’s call on Saturday for an end to the protests wasn’t the first time he has urged peace.

Mr. Obama has outlined a plan to start major troop withdrawals this summer, with the rest scheduled to leave by the end of 2014. Remaining committed right now is key to keeping terrorist groups at bay, Mr. Crocker said.

“If we decide we’re tired of it, al Qaeda and the Taliban certainly aren’t,” he said.

With the November election looming, the GOP candidates have seized on the slow progress to criticize how the president is handling Afghanistan and win over voters who are frustrated by the extended involvement.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Mr. Santorum blamed some of the setbacks in Afghanistan to the president not having “a commitment to success.” And he said that by apologizing, Mr. Obama made it sound like troops burned the Muslim holy books on purpose, even though officials have confirmed it was an accident.

“It suggests that there’s somehow blame,” he said. “To apologize, I think, lends credibility … that it was more than that.”

Mr. Gingrich said Mr. Karzai should apologize, suggesting that if he doesn’t, the U.S. should pull out of Afghanistan entirely.

“Candidly, if Hamid Karzai … doesn’t feel like apologizing, then I think we should say, ‘Goodbye and good luck,’ ” Mr. Gingrich said on Friday. “We don’t need to be here risking our lives and wasting our money on somebody who doesn’t care.”

Former Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs defended the president, saying he was trying to defuse the tension, and took a shot at Mr. Gingrich’s campaign promise to create a permanent colony on the moon if elected.

“Quite honestly, I don’t think many people are looking to Newt Gingrich for foreign-policy advice,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “If there’s a problem on the lunar colony, he’ll be among the first we call.”

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, on Sunday said the administration should learn from what he sees as the mistakes the president made in withdrawing from Iraq.

“I think we have to take the long view,” Mr. McCain said. “A strategic-partnership agreement is the way we can leave Afghanistan, but in a secure environment and a chance for a democratic government to remain in power. They just saw the United States leave Iraq completely, and Iraq unraveling.”

• Paige Winfield Cunningham can be reached at pcunningham@washingtontimes.com.

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