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Michael Steele causes uproar with Afghan remarks

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican Party leader Michael Steele faced heavy criticism and calls for his resignation on Friday after blaming President Barack Obama for the Afghanistan war and suggesting it could not be won.

RNC Chairman Michael Steele speaks at the 2010 Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana April 10, 2010. REUTERS/Sean Gardner

At a Republican fundraiser in Connecticut on Thursday, Steele was videotaped while criticizing Obama’s decision to bolster the Afghanistan war effort. The comments contradicted the stance of the party, which has consistently pushed for more troops and funding in Afghanistan.

“This was a war of Obama’s choosing,” said Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee. “This is not something the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in.”

Steele also called the recent resignation of Afghan war commander General Stanley McChrystal “comical” and made fun of Obama for deciding to increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

“If he’s such a student of history, has he not understood that you know that’s the one thing you don’t do, is engage in a land war in Afghanistan?” Steele asked the crowd in a video promptly distributed by Democrats and posted on YouTube.

“Because everyone who has tried, over a thousand years of history, has failed,” he said.

The United States invaded Afghanistan under Republican President George W. Bush in retaliation for the September 11, 2001, attacks by al Qaeda, whose leaders had taken refuge there.

The comments sparked a wave of criticism from Democrats and calls for Steele’s resignation, led by prominent Republican conservative columnist Bill Kristol.

“Needless to say, the war in Afghanistan was not ‘a war of Obama’s choosing,’” Kristol said in a blog on the Weekly Standard magazine site. “It has been prosecuted by the United States under Presidents Bush and Obama. Republicans have consistently supported the effort.

“There are, of course, those who think we should pull out of Afghanistan and they’re certainly entitled to make their case. But one of them shouldn’t be the chairman of the Republican Party.”

Steele issued a statement trying to extricate himself from the controversy, saying Obama’s shift in the U.S. military focus from Iraq to Afghanistan means “this is his strategy.”

“As we have learned throughout history, winning a war in Afghanistan is a difficult task. We must also remember that after the tragedy of September 11, 2001, it is also a necessary one,” Steele said. “The stakes are too high for us to accept anything but success in Afghanistan.”

Democrats pounced on the comments by Steele, who is trying to help lead Republicans to major gains in November’s congressional elections.

“It’s simply unconscionable that Michael Steele would undermine the morale of our troops when what they need is our support and encouragement,” said Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse.

Steele has been embroiled in a series of controversies since taking over the party last year, including questions about lavish party spending and comments on topics ranging from race to abortion to conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh.

Editing by Bill Trott.