"The United States takes this as seriously as if it was our own citizens and our own children who were murdered," President Obama said today in the White House Rose Garden, speaking of the 16 Afghans, nine of them children, killed over the weekend by an as-yet-unnamed U.S. Army staff sergeant. "We're heartbroken over the loss of innocent life."
It was the first time the president had used the word "murder" in relation to the killings, though White House officials said the word choice was not intended as any sort of escalation of language.
"The killing of innocent civilians is outrageous, and it's unacceptable," the president said. "It's not who we are as a country, and it does not represent our military."
The president said that he had directed leaders at the Pentagon "to make sure that we spare no effort in conducting a full investigation. I can assure the American people and the Afghan people that we will follow the facts wherever they lead us, and we will make sure that anybody who was involved is held fully accountable with the full force of the law."
Pentagon officials have said that they believe the staff sergeant was acting alone in this incident, so the fact that the president said that "anybody who was involved" will be "held fully accountable" was interesting - raising the possibility that it was intended as a signal to the Afghan people that he will await the results of a full investigation before he, as president, will come to any conclusion about whether others were involved, or perhaps as a sign that there may have been others responsible in some way due to negligence.
At the very least, that remark seemed to indicate that the president was publicly trying to send the message that no conclusion had been reached.
President Obama emphasized that the war is coming to a close. "Make no mistake," he said, "We have a strategy that will allow us to responsibly wind down this war. We're steadily transitioning to the Afghans, who are moving into the lead. And that's going to allow us to bring our troops home." Ten thousand U.S. troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 2011, and 23,000 are scheduled to leave by the end of the summer.
"There's no question that we face a difficult challenge in Afghanistan. But I am - I am confident that we can continue the work of meeting our objectives, protecting our country and responsibly bringing this war to a close."
The president noted that on Monday he met with ISAF Commander General John Allen and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker - in whom he said he had "extraordinary confidence" as well as "in the many Americans who are serving in Afghanistan who…have made extraordinary sacrifices to be there." Today he noted he will meet with British Prime Minister David Cameron, "who is part of our broad coalition serving in Afghanistan, and will have an opportunity to consult about the way forward as we prepare for the NATO summit in Chicago later this spring."
The president and Cameron will also be taking in a "March Madness" NCAA basketball tournament game this evening in Dayton, Ohio.