The killing of 16 Afghans by a U.S. soldier near a base in southern Afghanistan Sunday, combined with the recent outcry and violence over the accidental burning of Qurans on an American military base has some leading Republicans questioning whether the war is still worth the effort.
In the past 24 hours, two Republican presidential candidates—former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum—have suggested that in light of the incident, the United States may need to change course and re-examine its role in Afghanistan.
"There's something profoundly wrong with the way we're approaching the whole region, and I think it's going to get substantially worse, not better," Gingrich said this weekend on "Fox News Sunday." "And I think that we're risking the lives of young men and women in a mission that may frankly not be doable."
During an interview on NBC's "Today Show" on Monday, Santorum was less committal about removing troops, but said he was open to reassessing the nation's role there.
"Any time you have such a shocking development, I think it's important to take a look and see what the situation is and whether it's possible to continue on," Santorum said. "Given all of these additional problems, we have to either make the decision to make a full commitment, which this president has not done, or we have to decide to get out and probably get out sooner, given the president's decision to get out in 2014."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has said repeatedly that he wants to see American troops brought back from Afghanistan "as soon as we possibly can," but he has criticized President Barack Obama for publicly declaring the details of an exit strategy.
"Why in the world do you go to the people that you're fighting with and tell them the date you're pulling out your troops?" Romney said in Nevada last month. "It makes absolutely no sense." He later added that Obama's "naivete is putting in jeopardy the mission of the United States of America and our commitments to freedom."
A spokesman from Romney's campaign did not immediately return a request for comment about whether the weekend rampage in Afghanistan changed his view on American efforts there.
The comments made by the GOP candidates and others highlight a departure from past orthodoxy in the party that pushed for completing the mission of stabilizing Afghanistan. As late as June 2010, when then-Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele questioned the wisdom of the war effort, fellow Republicans called for his ouster. Steele was caught on tape during an event suggesting that the United States military would fail, comments that sparked outrage among some conservatives within the party.
But less than a year later, in March 2011, the Republican-majority House of Representatives narrowly defeated a bill to scale back the war in Afghanistan, a measure that had support from 26 Republicans. Another bipartisan amendment that would require a troop withdrawal plan within 60 days was also voted down, but gained 16 Republican votes.
Now, after more than a decade in Afghanistan, with conservative intellectuals like George Will having called for an exit for nearly three years and the presidential candidates beating the drum for a possible withdrawal, the possibility for a consensus between the parties seems ripe.
"I think you'll see this debate now open up in a pretty profound way in the Republican Party because the fact of the matter is the mission is not clear there," said Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, who helped run John McCain's presidential campaign in 2008. "The reality is that when you talk to people who've served there, they don't understand what the mission is, what the focus is. And when we leave Afghanistan, which we will eventually leave, it will be as if we have never been there."
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