- Associated Press - Monday, February 27, 2012

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. military is fully committed to its mission in Afghanistan and has no plans to change its strategy despite recent deadly violence that has shaken already fragile relations between Americans and their Afghan partners, the Pentagon said Monday.

Officials conceded, however, 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.

Navy Capt. John Kirby, a military spokesman in Kabul, Afghanistan, acknowledged that tensions are high but said the situation may be calming a bit — at least in terms of protests. He said fewer protests have occurred in the past two days, and less violence.

Two U.S. military officers were gunned down Saturday in their Interior Ministry office, and nine Afghans were killed Monday when a suicide bomber rammed his car into the gates of a NATO base in eastern Afghanistan.

The remains of the two officers will be flown to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, officials said Monday. They identified the two officers as Army Maj. Robert J. Marchanti II of Maryland and Air Force Lt. Col. John D. Loftis of Kentucky.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said the violence will not speed up the timeline for troop withdrawal. He answered questions about whether the war is worthwhile, given its unpopularity both in the United States and in Afghanistan, by pointing to President Obama’s rationale for expanding the war early in his presidency.

“The number one priority, the reason why U.S. troops are in Afghanistan in the first place, is to disrupt, dismantle and ultimately, ultimately defeat al Qaeda,” Mr. Carney said.

The job is not complete, Mr. Carney said, although he did not list any specific benchmarks that have not been met.

Violent incidents such as those during the weekend “are isolated incidents, which does not, of course, mean they’re not terrible,” Mr. Carney said. “But the overall importance of defeating al Qaeda remains. And that is why we need to see — to continue to focus on that, to continue the process of, and the implementation of the president’s objectives: transferring security lead over to the Afghans so that American troops can come home.”

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland praised Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s efforts to calm the situation.

“This is a relationship that is very important to both of us,” Ms. Nuland told reporters. “And we need to stay committed to it and not let the enemies of a peaceful, stable, increasingly democratic Afghanistan get the upper hand in this situation.”

About 40 people have been killed in protests and related attacks, including four U.S. soldiers, after NATO troops inadvertently burned several Korans in a trash fire last week. U.S. officials have apologized for the burning of the books.

On Monday, the United Nations also scaled back its operations, moving its international staff from an office in the northern city of Kunduz that was attacked during protests Saturday, the organization said in a statement.

Pentagon press secretary George Little said that the U.S. is taking “the long view” and that officials believe the Afghans are committed to stemming the violence. The important thing, he said, is to sustain the progress that has been made against insurgents in the country.

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