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With Panetta facing Senate panel, new questions on Afghan future

The murder of two U.S. officers inside the Interior Ministry in Kabul by an Afghan soldier over the weekend is raising new questions about the Obama administration’s ability to implement its strategy in Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is sure to face tough questions on the U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan when he testifies Tuesday morning before the Senate Budget Committee.

Panetta faced similar questions two weeks ago at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing from Sen. Susan Collins, R- Maine, who noted that since May of 2007, “Afghan security forces have killed 70 American and allied troops and wounded over a hundred more in 45 separate attacks.”

She noted the devastating effect on American soldiers and Marines -- and their families back home -- when they are “risking their lives to train and assist these Afghan troops only to have some of them turn on them and kill them.”

But in the middle of a presidential campaign there seems to be little room for the GOP contenders to outflank President Barack Obama politically on this issue. In their comments over the weekend GOP contenders commented less on the strategic questions raised by the Afghanistan killings than on Obama’s apology for the inadvertent burning of Korans at a U.S. base near Kabul.

Ambassador Susan Rice talks about the current situation in Afghanistan, whether the attacks on U.S. troops are renewing and whether America needs a speedier exit.

The killing of American soldiers “is the real crime here, not what our soldiers did," said former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum on NBC’s Meet the Press.

"We've made an enormous contribution to help the people there achieve freedom, and for us to be apologizing at a time like this is something which is very difficult for the American people to countenance,” said Republican contender Mitt Romney.

One of the Republican contenders, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, has long called for the United States to end its mission in Afghanistan.

The weekend’s events “add to a drip-feed of negative news that suggests Afghanistan is an unwinnable quagmire,” said Swarthmore College political scientist Dominic Tierney, author of “How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War.”

He said, “Republicans are berating the administration for apologizing and seeking to tie this into a story of administration weakness.”

But he added, “Republicans are actually fairly ambivalent about Afghanistan. While some Republicans stress the ‘stay the course’ message, there's not much appetite for big government nation-building in the country. Republicans want toughness and resolve, but they're dubious about our capacity to socially engineer Afghanistan into a stable democracy.”

The Obama administration’s case for continued patience was made Sunday on CNN by U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker: “This is not the time to decide that we're done here. We have got to redouble our efforts. We've got to create a situation in which al-Qaida is not coming back.”

Following seven days of unrelenting anger over the burning of Qurans, there was a fresh attack outside an airport in Afghanistan. NBC's Atia Abawi reports.

Last June, Obama said that the 33,000 U.S. “surge” force that he ordered to Afghanistan would be removed by the end of this summer. That would leave 68,000 U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan. Obama has set 2014 as the end date for the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan.

But Anthony Cordesman, a longtime military strategist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the bigger issues are the shifting U.S. strategy and the inherent difficulty of reshaping Afghanistan.

“At this point in time, we don’t have any particularly good or coherent options. The reason isn’t the Obama administration,” he said, but rather that the United States and its allies are confronting “the complexity of trying to transform the Afghan political structure and economy. This is not something you can blame on the Congress, the (American) people or the (Obama) administration.”

But, he added, the Obama administration has been “trying to rush the development of Afghan forces far too quickly” and that “we’re trying now to get more and more done by 2014, constantly changing the program as we cut the money and as there are more questions about how many troops are going to be actually supporting the Afghans.”

He said, “ultimately all of this does center around U.S. money” and the Obama administration’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget request has not “defined what that request is supposed to buy – although basically it cuts the level of spending in half, which means whatever your strategy was a year ago isn’t your strategy now.”

The United States and its NATO allies have scheduled a summit meeting in Chicago in May to agree on plans for Afghanistan’s future.

The Obama administration, Cordesman said, is “talking about transition, but until the Chicago conference takes place, you don’t have even the rough goal as to what ‘transition’ means, how much it will cost, what conditions the Afghans will meet, or what level of funding and support they are going to get.” 

He noted that, in addition to other uncertainties, “You don’t have a strategy that deals with the Pakistani sanctuaries – you don’t even know what level of support you can get from the Pakistanis ... .”

As for the fratricide attacks on U.S. soldiers by Afghans whom they are trying to train, Panetta said in his testimony two weeks ago that “better background checks” could help “ensure that these incidents are cut back.” He said the fratricide attacks are “not something that’s endemic. It is sporadic.”

Marine Gen. James Mattis, the head of U.S. Central Command, told Sen. Collins in a letter last week that “personal attacks make up a vast majority” of the fratricide incidents in which Afghan soldiers attack U.S. soldiers and Marines. “Most attackers are spurred by personal motivations, grievances, or emotions and act with little or no premeditation,” he said.

Cordesman noted, “The reality is that 18- to 20-year olds are not the natural ambassadors of a given culture –particularly if you give them guns and put them under intense stress.”

But Cordesman said, apart from stress or personal vendettas, “there will be infiltration (of U.S. forces in Afghanistan), not just incidents.” Infiltration of U.S. and other international forces is “one of the logical strategies for all of the insurgents to pursue” because “even a few bombings or killings can trigger all kinds of political reactions, as we’ve just seen.”