KABUL: The American campaign in Afghanistan has suffered a double blow: The Taliban broke off talks with the U.S., and President Hamid Karzai said NATO should pull out of rural areas and speed up the transfer of security responsibilities to Afghan forces nationwide in the wake of the killing of 16 civilians.
Thursday's moves represent new setbacks to America's strategy for ending the 10-year-old war at a time when support for the conflict is plummeting. Part of the U.S. exit strategy is to transfer authority gradually to Afghan forces. Another tack is to pull the Taliban into political discussions with the Afghan government, though it's unclear that there has been any progress since January.
Although Karzai has previously said that he wanted international troops to transition out of rural areas, the apparent call for an immediate exit is new. Karzai also said he now wants Afghan forces to take the lead for countrywide security in 2013, in what appeared to be a move to push the U.S. toward an earlier drawdown.
A statement released by Karzai's office said that during his meeting with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the president "requested that the international forces come out of Afghan villages and stay in their bases."
Karzai also said that the "Afghan security forces have the ability to provide security in the villages of our country," the statement said.
But a senior U.S. official said Karzai did not make any demands to have U.S. troops leave villages immediately. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to disclose details of a private meeting, said it's unclear that the U.S. would be able to pull all of its troops out of the villages even by 2013. He noted that the U.S. plans to continue counterterrorism operations and advising the Afghan forces around the country.
A rapid pullout from rural areas would have a devastating effect on U.S. ability to challenge the Taliban on the battlefield.
Unlike the Iraq war, where most combat was in towns and cities, the Afghan conflict is a struggle to secure rural hamlets and remote mountain valleys used by the militants to move in and out of sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan.
It would essentially mean the end of the strategy of trying to win hearts and minds by working with and protecting the local populations.
Karzai is known for making dramatic demands and then backing off under U.S. pressure. The call for a pullback — even if aimed at his domestic audience — will likely become another issue of contention between the Afghans and their international allies at a time of growing war weariness in the United States and other countries of the international coalition.
Karzai spoke as Afghan lawmakers were expressing outrage that the U.S. flew the soldier suspected of gunning down 16 civilians early Sunday in two Afghan villages to Kuwait on Wednesday night. They were demanding that the suspect, a U.S. Army staff sergeant, be tried in the country.
A Seattle, Washington, lawyer said Thursday that he has been hired to represent the soldier, a 38-year-old father of two young children. The lawyer, John Henry Browne, said soldiers in the suspect's camp had been very upset that somebody in their unit had been "gravely injured" a day before the rampage.
The soldier is from Seattle area, but Browne and the Army have refused to give his name.
"Everybody is worried about the safety of his family, and I am honoring that," Browne said.
Browne said his client is highly decorated, had twice been injured during tours in Iraq and was reluctant to leave on his fourth deployment. He denied reports suggesting that the soldier had alcohol or marital problems.
Browne said the soldier asked that he represent him. He once represented serial killer Ted Bundy, and more recently helped negotiate plea deals for Colton Harris-Moore, a youthful thief known as the "Barefoot Bandit" who gained international attention as he stole airplanes, boats and cars during a two-year run from the law.
Browne said he will travel to wherever the soldier is being held. He also will have at least one military lawyer.
Asked if Karzai's request was a response to the shooting spree, Foreign Ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai said that Karzai had long asked that military operations cease in rural areas because that's not where terrorism is rooted. But he added: "The shootings were an unforgivable act of murder in Kandahar. It's just one other argument for why Afghan soldiers should increasingly lead when it comes to Afghan people in the villages."
Afghan security forces know "a thousand times better than any foreign troops the culturally sensitive ways of dealing with their own people," the spokesman said.
A NATO soldier died Thursday in a roadside bomb attack in eastern Afghanistan, said the coalition. The statement released Friday did not provided further details, nor the nationality of the casualty.
The American accused of killing the civilians was stationed on just such a rural base, where a small group of soldiers worked with villagers to try to set up local defense forces and strengthen government. The accused soldier, who has not been named, is suspected of going on a shooting rampage in villages near his base in southern Afghanistan, killing nine children and seven other civilians and then burning some of their bodies.
Karzai told Panetta that everything must be done to prevent any such incidents in the future, including speeding up timelines for NATO pullbacks.
The meeting took place a day after President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron said in Washington that they and their NATO allies were committed to shifting to a support role in Afghanistan in 2013 — a year earlier than scheduled.
Obama gave his fullest endorsement yet for the mission shift, but he said the overall plan to gradually withdraw forces and hand over security in Afghanistan will stand.
Despite the Taliban statement that it was suspending talks with the U.S., White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday that the U.S. continues to support an Afghan-led process toward reconciliation. He said U.S. terms for participation in that process by the Taliban have not changed.
In the statement, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid accused the U.S. of failing to follow through on its promises, making new demands and falsely claiming that the militant group had entered into multilateral negotiations.
Mujahid said they had agreed to discuss two issues with the Americans: the establishment of the militant group's political office in Qatar and a prisoner exchange. The Taliban are seeking the release of five top Taliban leaders from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay.
The Taliban said the Americans initially agreed to take practical steps on these issues, but then "turned their backs on their promises" and came up with new conditions for the talks.
"So the Islamic Emirate has decided to suspend all talks with Americans taking place in Qatar from today onwards until the Americans clarify their stance on the issues concerned and until they show willingness in carrying out their promises instead of wasting time," Mujahid said. The Taliban refers to itself as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Karzai said last month that the U.S., the Afghan government and the Taliban held three-way talks aimed at moving toward a political settlement of the war.
The Taliban denied this and said talking with the Afghan government was "pointless."
Michael Semple, a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School who has been following the discussions, said the Taliban's decision was driven by a U.S. failure to follow through on the prisoner transfer from Guantanamo and Washington's insistence that the militant group engage with Karzai.