WASHINGTON — A crisis in Washington’s relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai sparked attacks Sunday on President Barack Obama, as Republican presidential candidates heaped blame on him for the troubles in the US exit strategy.
Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum assailed the president on separate television talks shows as creating an untenable situation by setting a hard-and-fast 2014 timetable for a US withdrawal.
“If the game plan is we’re leaving irrespective of whether we’re going to succeed or not, then why are we still there?” asked Santorum on ABC’s “This Week.” “Let’s either commit to winning, or let’s get out.”
The attacks from the right came as the administration was struggling to contain the fallout from a massacre of 16 villagers, many of them women and children, by a US soldier who allegedly went on a rampage March 11 in southern Afghanistan.
The White House said Obama and the Afghan leader reaffirmed their commitment to the 2014 withdrawal plan in a phone call Friday.
But Karzai’s warning that he was “at the end of the rope” and public demands for an earlier pullback of US troops to their bases underscored the yawning divide between the allies at a time of sharply declining public support for the 10-year-old war in the United States.
Republicans seized on the issue to accuse Obama of failing to heed his commanders demands for more troops, for withdrawing a surge force too soon and failing to demonstrate US commitment to a successful outcome.
“I think it is plain to see that the conditions there are not going very well,” said Romney on Fox News Sunday. “And I lay part of the blame for that on the lack of leadership on the part of our president, both in terms of his interactions with Karzai and with leaders there as well as his relative detachment from our military commanders there.”
“This does have the indications of a similarly failed withdrawal or a failed completion effort on the part of this president, just like we saw in Iraq. He likewise failed in the way we left Iraq,” he said.
But neither he nor Santorum, who are vying to run against Obama in November, were clear about what they would do if they were in the president’s place.
Santorum said he agreed in some respects with former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a rival for the Republican nomination who said last week it was likely the US mission in Afghanistan was “not doable.”
Romney said the current timetable should remain in effect “unless of course there are changes in conditions that suggest a faster withdrawal.”
Advocates of an extended US presence in Afghanistan, meanwhile, argued that the decline in US public support for the war reflected a loss of confidence in the US strategy.
“Do we know what we are doing when these incidents happen and President Karzai makes the statements that he has done,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US ambassador to Kabul under president George W. Bush, on CNN.
“It raises questions in the minds of people, do we know what we are doing? Are we succeeding?”
Senator John McCain, a staunch proponent of a large and continuing US military presence in Afghanistan, disputed the perception that the mission was failing, insisting that the relationship between US troops and Afghanistan “is wonderful.”
If Obama does not accelerate the withdrawal of US forces, he said, “we can withdraw with a stable government in Afghanistan.”
He acknowledged, however, that the massacre of civilians “really sets back everything a great deal.”