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President Barack Obama said Monday that the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier made him "more determined" to stick to his plan to bring U.S. troops home but warned against a "rush to the exits" that could endanger America's interests.
"It makes me more determined to make sure that we're getting our troops home. It's time," he told KDKA television of Pittsburgh, one of a series of interviews with local stations he did at the White House.
"But what we don't want to do is to do it in a way that is just a rush for the exits," he stressed. "We've got to make sure that the Afghans can protect their borders and prevent Al-Qaeda from coming back, and so we're going to have to do it in a responsible way."
His comments came one day after a US soldier, described in news reports as a 38-year-old U.S. Army Staff Sergeant, went on a shooting rampage outside his base in southern Afghanistan, killing mostly women and children and plunging already strained ties between Kabul and Washington into a damaging new crisis.
"This is a situation where, although we're still doing the investigation, it appears that you had a lone gunman who acted on his own in just a tragic, tragic way," Obama told WFTV of Orlando, Florida.
Asked whether the bloody rampage recalled the My Lai Massacre of the Vietnam War, Obama replied that "it's not comparable."
"In no way is this representative of the enormous sacrifices that our men and women in uniform have made in Afghanistan. It does signal, though, the importance of us transitioning, in accordance with my plan, so that Afghans are taking more of the lead for their own security and we can start getting our troops home," he added.
But, he warned, "It's not going to get any easier over the next few months."
Obama's strategy calls for handing over security in Afghanistan to local forces while removing U.S. troops by the end of 2014 — a plan the White House said will not change in response to the shooting.
At the same time, the issue was sure to arise when Obama meets British Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday and certain to be a central subject of discussion at a NATO summit in Chicago in May -- and both could lead to a change in the pace and scope of the withdrawal.
On the same day that his reelection campaign highlighted Obama's decision to order the May 2, 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the president underlined to KDKA that "now that we've gotten bin Laden, now that we've weakened al-Qaeda, we're in a stronger position to transition than we would have been two or three years ago."
Still, he told KDKA, "it's important for us to make sure that we get out in responsible way, so that we don't end up having to go back in."
The shooting spree came shortly after the burning of Muslim holy books on a U.S. base sparked days of deadly rioting that saw some Afghan security forces turn their guns on U.S. troops. Obama apologized for the incident.
On the campaign trail, some of Obama's potential Republican rivals questioned whether the war was still worth it.
And a new ABC News/Washington Post poll found U.S. public sentiment against America's longest war at near-record highs.
A narrow majority, 54 percent, of respondents said U.S. troops should withdraw on time whether or not Afghan forces are self-sufficient.
And the survey—which was conducted on Saturday before the reported killing spree—found that 60 percent of Americans say the war has not been worth fighting. That's just four points shy of the record 64 percent who said the same thing one year ago.
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