Clinton defends US mission in Afghanistan

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By DONNA CASSATA and ROBERT BURNS, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday defended the U.S. mission in Afghanistan as a week of deadly anti-American protests and the killing of two U.S. service members pushed Democrats to challenge President Barack Obama's policy.

Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski gave voice to the increasing exasperation in Congress more than a decade after the war began. She held up a copy of a newspaper with a report on the death of Army Maj. Robert J. Marchanti II of Baltimore, one of the two high-ranking officers shot point blank while they say at their desks in a heavily secured ministry building. Air Force Lt. Col. John D. Loftis, of Paducah, Ky., was also killed.

"What do I tell his family today? Was it worth it? Because they're angry. People in Maryland are angry," Mikulski told Clinton at a Senate hearing.

"We went there with the best of intentions and out of need, after we were attacked. You were the New York senator. We remember the harsh reality of that brutal 9/11. ... And now because of an inadvertent act, the relationship is so fragile, there's this tumultuous thing," she added.

Clinton said the United States went to Afghanistan with a clear purpose after the Sept. 11 attacks and that Obama has set the country on a path to leave.

"This is not an endless commitment that will take lives far into the future," Clinton told the Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations. "But we have both made progress on the principle reason we were there — security. Because of our platform and our presence in Afghanistan, we've been able to target terrorists, particularly top al-Qaida operatives including (Osama) bin Laden in their safe havens. And we have made progress in helping the Afghan people."

Clinton said she could never justify the death of an individual, but insisted that the military mission has made the United States safer and created the possibility of a better future for Afghanistan.

More than 30 people have died in clashes since it became known last week that copies of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, and other religious materials were thrown into a fire pit used to burn garbage at a U.S. base near Kabul.

Obama has apologized for what he said was a mistake.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., also pressed Clinton on the U.S. mission and the events in Afghanistan.

Separately, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark praised U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan for showing "remarkable restraint" in the face of anti-coalition violence following the burning of the Quran.

Fogh Rasmussen told a NATO seminar at a Washington hotel that Gen. John Allen, the top allied commander in Afghanistan, was right to withdraw all allied advisers from Afghan government ministries after two U.S. officers were killed in their offices on Saturday.

Troops from the U.S.-led international military coalition "are showing remarkable restraint and professionalism under very difficult circumstances," Fogh Rasmussen said.

"Despite the challenges of this incident and the challenges we face, we must not lose sight of our goal: a stable Afghanistan," he said.

The NATO chief echoed the Obama administration's stay-the-course theme on Afghanistan, insisting that the breakdown in trust between the allies and the Afghans, as evidenced by Saturday's shooting in the Interior Ministry, would be overcome.

"We will not allow the extremists to weaken our resolve," he said. "We will continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our Afghan partners, and we will not lose sight of our shared goal. We are in Afghanistan to build stability and security for the Afghan people, which is in the interest of our own security."

He said Saturday's shooting, following a series of incidents in which other allied troops have been shot by their supposed Afghan partners, "does not represent the daily picture" of cooperation on security and other issues.

The withdrawal of advisers is temporary and "will not in any way affect the timeline" for giving the Afghan government full responsibility for security across the country by the end of 2014, he said.

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