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In the week since Staff Sergeant Robert Bales's alleged killing of Afghan civilians, there has been much debate about whether the U.S. should stay the course in Afghanistan. That debate has taken up considerable oxygen on Capitol Hill, where next week the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, will testify before both the House and Senate Armed Services committees. As NPR's David Welna reports, just as the nation is divided over the war in Afghanistan, so too is Congress.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: South Dakota's John Thune is in charge of messaging for the Senate Republicans. Usually, he can be relied on to hammer President Obama's policies. But when it comes to the war in Afghanistan, Thune refuses to seize on the latest atrocity there to go after the president.
SENATOR JOHN THUNE: I don't think you can allow, you know, what was an awful tragic event - but a random event - influence too much our goals there. And I think the president has said that. Secretary Panetta has said that. And I don't think there's a lot of disagreement up here.
WELNA: That certainly holds true for some top congressional Republicans. Here's Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell sounding this week as if he were a spokesman for the Obama White House:
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: The president has a plan to transition this mission over to the Afghan army over the next couple of years. I know it's been a very challenging period, but I think we ought to stick with the plan that's been laid out by the administration.
WELNA: But other leading Republicans fault that plan, which removes 23,000 U.S. troops next year and the 65,000 others by the end of 2014. Texas GOP Senator John Cornyn says President Obama is more fixated on his re-election than on success in Afghanistan.
SENATOR JOHN CORNYN: Political timetables based on arbitrary deadlines rather than conditions on the ground is a bad idea, and so I'm not satisfied with the administration's proposals.
WELNA: Rick Santorum lobbed similar criticism this week on the campaign trail. Mitt Romney called for 100,000 more troops on active duty. But on CBS, Newt Gingrich declared the time has come to leave Afghanistan.
NEWT GINGRICH: I think we need to reconsider the whole region. We need to understand that our being in the middle of countries like Afghanistan is probably counterproductive. We're not prepared to be ruthless enough to force them to change and yet we're clearly an alien presence.
WELNA: That got Republicans fighting among themselves. One of Gingrich's harshest critics is Lindsey Graham, a GOP senator from South Carolina.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: If all you've got to offer is political rhetoric and you're trying to sort of get a political advantage in a primary or a general election to undercut the plan, shame on you, 'cause that's not in America's self-interest.
WELNA: Congressional Democrats, too, are divided. When asked this week about his views on Afghanistan, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid stood by the president.
SENATOR HARRY REID: I think that we should stick by what we have. We're drawing down in Afghanistan and we should stick by the timeline that we have.
WELNA: Still, far more Democrats than Republicans in Congress question the wisdom of prolonging a war that's ground on for more than a decade. Senator Joe Manchin is seeking reelection this fall in West Virginia. He's visited Afghanistan twice.
SENATOR JOE MANCHIN: We should've been out of there a long time ago. It's not a place for us, to be trying to nation build. We need to come back home rebuilding America. We're not going to change Afghanistan or the Afghan mindset.
WELNA: Manchin is among two dozen senators, two of them Republicans, who signed a letter sent last week to the president. It is time, they wrote, to bring our troops home from Afghanistan. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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