WASHINGTON -- Despite the murder of two U.S. advisers inside a heavily guarded Afghan ministry building Saturday and waves of violent anti-American protests across the country, the United States and its allies will press ahead with the mission in Afghanistan, Pentagon spokesmen said Monday.
Hundreds of U.S. advisers were withdrawn Saturday from the Afghan ministry buildings where they are assigned, and restricted to the military compound in Kabul. They have not been allowed to return, officials said. All American military personnel and civilians in Kabul have been restricted to the fortified compounds there. Investigations by both U.S. and Afghan authorities are underway after the gunman responsible for Saturday's murders made an escape undetected.
Anti-American demonstrations continued across the country Monday, ignited last week by the burning of Qurans at the U.S. military base at Bagram. Apologies by U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama, emphasized that the Quran burnings were accidental. As violent protests spread across the country last week, two U.S. troops were shot dead by demonstrators on Thursday in Nangarhar Province in eastern Afghanistan.
In a hastily called news conference Monday, Pentagon spokesman George Little said the United States is "unwavering in our commitment'' to Afghanistan. He said the Obama administration's strategy of preparing the Afghan security forces to take over by the end of 2014 is continuing unchanged.
"Anyone who believes they can weaken our resolve through these cowardly attacks is severely mistaken,'' Little declared at the Pentagon briefing.
Navy Capt. John Kirby, a spokesman in Kabul for the top commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, said joint U.S.-Afghan military operations continue across the country. He said the U.S. investigation into the burning of the Qurans is not yet completed.
Current U.S. warfighting guidance requires that all ground operations be conducted jointly, pairing U.S. and coalition troops with Afghan army or national police units. In most cases, American and Afghan security forces live on the same bases.
"Trust and confidence are the keys to coalition warfare,'' Kirby told reporters in a video teleconference with Pentagon reporters. "There's going to be issues, some tensions and some disagreements, and these very dreadful, lethal incidents. But at the leadership level, everybody here is focusing on maintaining that trust and confidence."
Saturday's murders were "tragic and a shock to the system," Kirby said. "But everybody wants to continue the mission and get back to work."
Under guidance from the White House, U.S. military operations in Afghanistan are shifting from direct combat to training and advising Afghan security forces. Two U.S. Army brigades are currently training at Fort Polk, La., as the first all-adviser teams to be deployed to Afghanistan. Under the current strategy, the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is to be slowly drawn down at least to about 68,000 by this autumn and perhaps further by the end of the year. All U.S. combat troops, under this plan, are to be gone by the end of 2014.
Little, the Pentagon spokesman, said that timetable is still valid. He said no final decisions have been made about the gradual draw-down of troops this year. "The important thing is to sustain the progress we've made," he said.
Little insisted that the rising number of attacks by Afghan soldiers on American and coalition troops, and the nationwide violence set off by the burning of the Qurans, does not mean that the decade-long U.S. effort in Afghanistan has been in vain.
"The fundamentals of the strategy remain sound," he said. "We are making progress; we have put the enemy on its heels in many parts of the country."
"Nothing that has happened over the past week will deter us,'' Little said. "This is temporary."