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Shootings In Afghanistan Stir Debate

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WASHINGTON – A rampage by an American soldier who allegedly killed 16 civilians in Afghanistan on Sunday has most of New Mexico’s delegation and others in Congress stepping up calls to bring U.S. troops home.

The four Democrats in New Mexico’s five-member delegation in Congress have urged President Barack Obama for months to bring troops home in advance of his announced September 2014 pullout date. Rep. Steve Pearce, the fifth member of the delegation and its only Republican, has consistently declined to suggest a withdrawal date, saying the decision should be left to military leaders.

Candidates for New Mexico’s open U.S. Senate and 1st Congressional District House seats gave varying answers to the Journal’s questions this week about withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.

Sunday’s killing of Afghan civilians by a U.S. Army staff sergeant came on the heels of Quran burnings by U.S. servicemen in January and the release of a photo in February that showed Marines appearing to urinate on Taliban corpses.

According to a USA Today poll conducted after the shootings, 50 percent of Americans favor bringing troops home sooner than Obama plans. Six in 10, however, worry that pulling out too quickly would make Afghanistan a safe haven for terror groups, according to the same poll.

The incumbents

Delegation Democrats were careful this week not to link their calls for withdrawal directly to the massacre or other damaging events, saying the incidents are aberrations. But they said the sometimes violent backlash among the Afghan people puts U.S. soldiers in greater danger and underscores the need to bring them home.

“The killing of 16 Afghan civilians over the weekend reinforces my view that we should move as quickly as we can to bring our troops home, but we must do so in a way that is consistent with keeping a viable government in place,” said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat.

Just how quickly the U.S. should withdraw is unclear, delegation Democrats said.

“It should be governed by how safely we can get the personnel and the material out,” said Rep. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat serving on the House Armed Services Committee and a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat Bingaman will vacate at the end of the year. “I think we can do that more quickly than the president’s 2014 timetable.”

About 91,000 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan today. On Tuesday, Obama told reporters in Washington that he plans to call 23,000 troops home by the end of this summer. He also pointed out that 10,000 troops came home from Afghanistan last year. It remains unclear when the rest will come home, but Obama has said U.S. combat operations will cease by September 2014.

Pearce said speeding up the military’s exit from Iraq is less important than finishing the job it set out to do.

“To let the actions of one or two people affect policy is usually a bad decision,” Pearce said. “If we were to start pulling out early and we don’t finish training the Afghanis, then that’s going to expose a lot of people to destructive things.”

During his weekly radio interview with New Mexico reporters, Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat, called Sunday’s killings “shocking and tragic.”

“What he (the U.S. soldier) did runs contrary to everything our nation’s forces stand for and should not taint the good work they have done,” Udall said. “I believe its time for Afghans to take control of security in their country. … It’s time to transition our combat forces out of Afghanistan on an expedited timeline.”

Rep. Ben Ray Luján, a Democrat, called Sunday’s killings a “terrible tragedy” and advocated bringing troops home ahead of Obama’s timetable.

“I will continue to encourage an end to combat operations that allows our troops to come home safely and as soon as possible,” Luján said.

U.S. Senate candidates

Former Rep. Heather Wilson, a former House Armed Services member who is seeking the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate seat that opens up with Bingaman’s retirement, said in a statement: “It’s time for a closer look at Afghanistan – our interests and our strategy for securing those interests.”

Wilson’s campaign declined to say whether she supported an earlier withdrawal than Obama has suggested.

Greg Sowards, a Las Cruces Republican also seeking the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, said the ongoing conflict is having a “wearing effect” on the military, but he said that doesn’t necessarily require a hasty withdrawal.

“I would like to withdraw as soon as our goals are reached,” Sowards said.

State Auditor Hector Balderas, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat along with Heinrich, declined to say whether he supports bringing troops home sooner than the Obama timetable.

“I remain hopeful that we will be able to withdraw our brave men and women of uniform from Afghanistan as quickly and safely as military commanders deem possible,” Balderas said.

1st Congressional District candidates

In the contest for the Democratic nomination to the 1st Congressional District seat that Heinrich is leaving, all three candidates support speeding up the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

“I call on Congress and President Obama to speed up our withdrawal from Afghanistan and instead invest our resources to rebuild America,” said state Sen. Eric Griego, a Democrat.

“I call on the president to pursue an accelerated withdrawal consistent with the safety of our troops on the ground,” said Bernalillo County Commissioner Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat.

Former Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chávez, also a Democratic candidate, said: “This episode underscores the need to bring our troops home as safely and quickly as possible.”

Janice Arnold-Jones, a former state representative seeking the Republican nomination in the 1st District, said she also supports a faster withdrawal than Obama has recommended, as long as it is a well thought-out plan.

“We’ve been in a free-fire zone, of varying degrees, for over 10 years,” Arnold-Jones said. “The wear and tear on the active-duty, Reserve and Guard forces is huge, and the impacts on their families are even more so.”

Two other GOP candidates – City Councilor Dan Lewis and Army veteran Gary Smith, did not respond to requests for comment.

— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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