REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON -- President Obama said Monday that the massacre of Afghan civilians by an American soldier over the weekend highlights the need for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, but he warned against a “rush for the exits.”
The U.S. still has a responsibility to proceed gradually and follow a careful withdrawal plan, Obama said in a television interview broadcast Monday evening.
“It makes me more determined to make sure that we’re getting our troops home. It’s time,” Obama said of the shocking killings as he spoke with a journalist from KDKA television in Pittsburgh.
“But what we don’t want to do is to do it in a way that is just a rush for the exits,” Obama said. “So we’re going to do it in a responsible way.”
Obama signaled his plan to stay the course in Afghanistan during interviews with local stations, invited from across the country to the White House for discussions about domestic policy.
But as he prepared for the arrival of the British prime minister on Tuesday, Obama was asked if the U.S. and its NATO allies are making any progress in stabilizing Afghanistan -- and whether it’s time to cut ties more quickly.
Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron are expected to discuss the hand-over of security responsibility to the Afghan government in advance of a NATO summit in late May. Aides to the president say the leaders are examining the timetable that previously set withdrawal for the end of 2014.
The slayings on Sunday spurred new questions about the path forward. As word spread that an Army staff sergeant had killed at least 16 people, including children, critics raised questions that could shake already precarious support for the war.
Anti-American sentiment, fueled by the burning of Muslim holy books by U.S. troops, has been on full display among Afghans.
A new Washington Post/ABC News poll picked up continued skepticism and wariness about the war’s objectives, with 60% saying they did not believe the war has been “worth fighting.” The survey was taken last week, before the shooting rampage.
On the campaign trail in Alabama on Monday, former GOP Sen. Rick Santorum criticized Obama’s decision to announce a departure date in the first place.
“As I’ve said many times, the president’s plan in Afghanistan was designed not to succeed,” Santorum said while campaigning in Tuscaloosa. “My feeling is if the president’s not going to commit to success, then I would certainly be open to leaving Afghanistan early. That certainly would not be my plan if I was president. I would commit to success there and would do what was necessary to be successful.”
In an interview with WFTV, based in Orlando, Obama called the weekend killings “tragic” but disagreed with a journalist’s suggestion that the incident could be a “My Lai moment,” a reference to a 1968 massacre by U.S. troops in Vietnam that inspired outrage around the world.
“It appears that you had a lone gunman who acted on his own, in just a tragic, tragic way,” Obama told the WFTV reporter. “Obviously, in no way is this representative of the enormous sacrifices that our men and women in uniform have made in Afghanistan.”
The incident does signal the importance of a U.S. transition out of Afghanistan, Obama said, done “in accordance with my plan so that Afghans are taking more of the lead for their own security and we can start getting our troops home.”
“We’ve got to do it in a responsible way -- reducing our footprint progressively, giving Afghans more and more responsibility while we keep an eye on going after Al Qaeda and making sure that no attacks against our homeland can be launched from that region,” Obama said. “That’s going to be my continued focus for the next couple of years.”
Speaking with reporters in London, Cameron said he doesn’t think that the current plan for Afghanistan is perfect, but the allies must abide by it anyway.
“It’s deeply depressing, what has happened,” Cameron said of the shootings. “Terrible though it is, we must stick to the plan that we have.”
-- Christi Parsons and Kathleen Hennessey
-- John Hoeffel contributed to this report from Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Henry Chu contributed from London
Photo: President Obama talks on the phone with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai from his vehicle in Chevy Chase, Md., on Sunday to express condolences after 16 Afghan villagers were killed. Credit: Pete Souza / Associated Press / White House