Key senators on Tuesday weighed what impact the weekend killings of civilians in Afghanistan should have on the pace of withdrawal of U.S. troops in that country.
A shooting spree that left 16 Afghan civilians dead – allegedly at the hands of an Army staff sergeant – has ratcheted up debate on Capitol Hill over whether to hasten the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, predicted the Obama administration would continue with a steady drawdown of troops after 23,000 surge forces come home at the end of September. He said events like the Quran burning and the shooting over the weekend do have an "emotional impact" on policy makers.
"I think there's now going to be a reinforcement for the argument that these reductions should continue," he told reporters.
Levin said the debate now within the Obama administration centers around whether to continue withdrawing troops at a steady rate after the surge forces exit in September, or to pause those withdrawals until mid-to-late 2013.
"I think many of the uniform leaders would like to stop there for a year or more and then have a steep decline to get to 2014, in fact some I think would prefer to wait until 2014 before there's any further reductions after the surge forces are removed,” he said.
All combat troops are set to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Levin and other top senators had their first opportunity to react to the slayings after returning from the weekend.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said it should be up to the military leadership to determine what level of troops are needed. He warned about talk of withdrawal by Republican presidential candidates.
"If politicians start micromanaging the war like we did in Vietnam, we're going to have a disaster," Graham said.
Graham fiercely defended the U.S. commander on the ground in Afghanistan, General John Allen.
"If we speed up withdrawal because of political concerns in November, we undercut the general and we're gonna fail," he said.
Graham took a swipe at Newt Gingrich saying he was "very disappointed" by his reaction this weekend after the shooting. Gingrich told FOX News Sunday the U.S. was on a mission that might not be "doable".
"When Republican candidates for president and Republican politicians talk about beating the drumbeat of withdrawal, it makes it harder for the general to do his job," Graham said.
The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), said the U.S. needs to move very swiftly to contain the fallout from the shooting.
"I think the most important thing is for the military to move very, very rapidly, very transparently, very accountably to indict and to make clear the process by which this individual will be brought to justice. That process has to be something the Afghan people can follow and understand," he said.
Kerry speculated the U.S. may need to tweak its presence on the ground and put Afghans in the lead of more missions.
"Right now it’s better to have Afghans more front and center," he said.
He cautioned against changing the plan for U.S. troop withdrawals based on this one incident.
"The president's on a pretty steep rate of withdrawal that the military has agreed to, but I think anything beyond that the military would push back very significantly. I think you have to look at the mission. The mission didn't change overnight just because some guy went out and regrettably created mayhem"
Kerry said he thought the Quran burning may have created more of an emotional impact across Afghanistan. He said that while the shooting by a U.S. solider was particularly tragic sadly Afghans have grown accustomed to war.
"The sort of day-to-day cost of war that they've lived with now for ten years and the fact that civilians have been killed in one instance or another,” he said. “This news is not quite as jarring under those circumstances as was the situation with the burring of the Quran."
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) was one Senator who said outright it was time to step up troop withdrawals.
"We got rid of the Taliban; we got rid of Osama bin Laden. Now we have an ally that disrespects us, who disparages us, who is openly confrontational to us," he said.
Would he speed up the timetable for withdrawal then?
"I think so," he said walking onto the Senate floor.