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Afghanistan unrest stirs worries, but doesn't shake commitment

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reaffirmed Tuesday the Obama administration’s determination to persist in seeking a stable government in Afghanistan after the murder of two U.S. military officers by an Afghan soldier inside the Interior Ministry building in Kabul.

Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

'The reason we are there, senator, is because our mission is to dismantle, destroy, and defeat al Qaida and their terrorist allies,' Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said.

The weekend murders were the latest in a wave of “fratricide” attacks by Afghan soldiers and policemen on American soldiers in Afghanistan.

At a Senate Budget Committee hearing Sen. Lindsey Graham, R- S.C., asked Panetta, “When it comes to Afghanistan … is it worth it? What is winning? What’s the benefit of winning? What’s the cost of losing?”

See related: Panetta applauds Karzai statement on peace talks

“The reason we are there, senator, is because our mission is to dismantle, destroy, and defeat al Qaida and their terrorist allies,” Panetta said. “Our ultimate goal here has to be an Afghanistan that can control and secure itself and make sure that it can never again become a safe haven where terrorists can plan attacks,”.

He added that “the cost of losing” is that the Taliban would regain control of Afghanistan and that terrorist groups would regroup there “and their sole goal is to attack this country.”

No senators asked Panetta whether the fratricide attacks call into question the Obama administration’s strategy of training Afghan military forces so that they can take responsibility for keeping order in the country once most U.S. forces are withdrawn in 2014, as Obama has promised.

Separately, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D- Mich., told reporters Tuesday that if there’s no repeat of the inadvertent burning of Korans in Afghanistan -- which may have triggered the murders of the two Americans -- then “we will not see a repeat of this kind of violence. I don’t believe the Afghan people want us to leave. I don’t think that most of the Afghan army or police are willing to attack us, or want to attack us any way. I think it’s a very small minority.”

What’s more important, Levin said, is that “the Afghan police and army are the ones who are putting down the violence” --  the riots and demonstrations which followed the Koran burning.

With one exception, other members of the Armed Services Committee said they were worried about the weekend attack and the pattern of fratricide incidents, but didn’t indicate they’d support a quicker drawdown of American forces or an earlier exit date.

Sen. Kay Hagan, D- N.C., said, “It certainly raises a huge issue if people that we are helping and entrusting then kill our own soldiers.”

Sen. Jack Reed, D- R.I., said Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his cabinet needed to block infiltration and to prevent fratricide attacks. They now face “a test of their commitment to partnering with NATO” and a chance to “to demonstrate their seriousness” about taking steps to stop fratricide attacks.

He said, ”You want to be very careful and deliberate in this process, but I think it raises a significant issue of the willingness and capacity of the Afghani forces to partner with us.” But he said the “trajectory has already been set” by President Obama for exit of U.S. forces in 2014.

The certainty of that exit date probably defuses the opposition to the Afghanistan deployment among some members of Congress.

Calling the weekend killings “horrible” and saying American forces would need to be “much more vigorous in vetting our partners,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R- N.H., said she did not think the weekend’s events should lead to a change in American strategy.

“We still have a very important interest in Afghanistan,” she said, “We cannot allow Afghanistan to become a launching pad and a haven for terrorism again. And if we suddenly withdraw from Afghanistan based on these events, we will actually empower those who are committing these acts of terrorism right now in Afghanistan and further encourage additional acts of terrorism.”

But another Armed Services Committee member, Democratic dissenter Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, said the murder of the U.S. officers “reinforces what I have always said: that’s an extremely dangerous place. I don’t believe we should be there trying to nation build, trying to change the culture of people – we shouldn’t, and I don’t think we can do that.”

He added, “We should get out of there immediately and leave no doubt that we will go after terrorism wherever it may be. Everyone says, ‘when you leave, they will all come back.’ Well, if they come back with intent to do us harm, we’ll be back.”

But he said he didn’t want to put “our sons and daughters in a situation where the people they trained are going to be turning their guns on them. It’s ridiculous.”