WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States should resist any urge to pull troops out of Afghanistan ahead of schedule in response to the violence against Americans sparked by a burning of the Koran at a U.S. military base, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker said on Sunday.
“Tensions are running very high here. I think we need to let things calm down, return to a more normal atmosphere, and then get on with business,” Crocker said in an interview from Kabul on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
He added that a full investigation of the incident was underway at the Bagram airbase near Kabul.
A U.S. Defense Department spokesman said the Afghan defense and interior ministers were postponing scheduled trips to the United States this week while consulting with other Afghan leaders on protecting allied forces and quelling the violence.
Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Interior Minister Bismillah Mohammadi had been set to meet U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday, March 1.
Panetta looks forward to hosting them at the Pentagon in the “near future,” and understands why their efforts at home take priority now, Pentagon press secretary George Little said in an email.
Crocker, in the CNN interview, said: “This is not the time to decide that we are done here. We have got to redouble our efforts. We’ve got to create a situation that al Qaeda is not coming back,” Crocker said.
“If we decide we’re tired of it, al Qaeda and the Taliban certainly aren’t,” he said.
U.S. forces are scheduled to cede the lead role in combat operations in Afghanistan next year, but will keep fighting alongside Afghan troops under American plans announced recently.
The U.S. forces have been fighting in Afghanistan since a 2001 invasion that toppled the Taliban rulers who harbored the al Qaeda leaders responsible for the September 11 attacks on the United States.
President Barack Obama apologized on Thursday in a letter to Afghan President Hamid Karzai for the burning of copies of the Koran, which he called “inadvertent” and an “error.” Crocker added that Karzai accepts both publicly and privately that the burning was inadvertent.
Still, anger raged in Afghanistan for a sixth day on Sunday over desecration of the Muslim holy book.
Seven U.S. military trainers were wounded on Sunday when a grenade was thrown at their base in northern Afghanistan. At least four American troops have been killed in apparent revenge attacks in the past week, and dozens of Afghans have been killed or wounded in protests over the incident.
In a CNN interview from Rabat, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Sunday others need to join Karzai in calling for an end to the violence. “It is out of hand and it needs to stop.”
Crocker noted that Karzai has called for calm “almost since the beginning,” and Afghan security forces were working to quell the demonstrations. “They are very much in this fight trying to protect us,” Crocker said.
U.S. personnel working alongside Afghans in government ministries were removed on Saturday after two U.S. officers were killed at their desks in apparent retaliation for the Koran incident.
Clinton chided Republican U.S. presidential candidates for continuing criticism of Obama’s apology. “I find it somewhat troubling that our politics would enflame such a dangerous situation in Afghanistan,” she said.
“It was the right thing to do to have our president on record as saying this was not intentional, we deeply regret it,” Clinton said.
A leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, on Sunday stepped up his criticism of Obama. Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Romney said that for many Americans, considering the thousands of American deaths in Afghanistan, the apology “sticks in their throats.”
Pulling U.S. forces and civilians out of Afghan ministry offices after two U.S. officers were killed in the Interior Ministry in apparent retaliation for the Koran incident was, Romney said, “an extraordinary admission of a failure.”
His chief opponent, Republican Rick Santorum, said Karzai should apologize to the United States for the violent reaction to “something that was clearly inadvertent.”
“I think the response needs to be apologized for by Karzai and the Afghan people - of attacking and killing our men and women in uniform,” Santorum said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “That’s the real crime here, not what our soldiers did.”
Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro, Jim Wolf; Writing by Jackie Frank; Editing by Will Dunham and Christopher Wilson