President Obama says the uproar in Afghanistan over the burning of copies of the Muslim holy book on a NATO military base illustrates the need for the American military to transition out of that country.
Obama said the Koran burning and the violence in its wake show the difficulties facing American forces even as they reduce their combat role in the region.
“Yes, the situation with the Koran burning concerns me,” Obama told reporters Tuesday. “I think that it is an indication of the challenges in that environment, and it’s an indication that now is the time for us to transition.”
The U.S. was already planning its withdrawal from combat in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, with plans to hammer out more details when the leaders of the NATO alliance gather in Chicago in May.
But the latest round of protests and violence underscore the reason for doing that on a tight time schedule, according to administration officials.
As negotiators try to work out the details of the transfer from international forces, one of the top demands of Afghan President Hamid Karzai is for Afghans to take over the U.S. prison at Bagram military base where the Korans were sent to an incineration pit after several enlisted troops reportedly misinterpreted an order to dispose of them.
Obama apologized to Karzai for the incident, but it set off several days of anti-American protests in which 40 people died.
Obama said Tuesday that the U.S. is still devoted to a long-term relationship with Afghanistan but emphasized that he doesn’t want troops to stay beyond the point of shutting down Al Qaeda.
“We are not interested in staying there any longer than is necessary to assure that Al Qaeda is not operating there, and that there is sufficient stability that it doesn’t end up being a free-for-all after ISAF [NATO’s International Security Assistance Force] has left,” Obama said in a news conference.
He said he’s confident the exit strategy will work, even if it’s “not going to be a smooth path.”
“There are going to be bumps along the road,” Obama said, “just as there were in Iraq.”