Karzai Calls on U.S. to Pull Back as Taliban Cancel Talks

Afghan Grief after Massacre by US Soldier - (Credit: pressirtv)
KABUL, Afghanistan, March 15 — Prospects for an orderly withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan suffered two blows on Thursday as President Hamid Karzai demanded that the United States confine troops to major bases by next year, and the Taliban announced that they were suspending peace talks with the Americans.

Getting talks started with the Taliban has been a major goal of the United States and its NATO allies for the past two years, and only in recent months was there concrete evidence of progress.

And the declaration by President Karzai, if carried out, would greatly accelerate the pace of transition from NATO to Afghan control, which previously was envisioned to be complete by 2014. Defense officials admitted there was a major divide between Mr. Karzai’s declaration and the American goals of training the Afghan security forces and conducting counterinsurgency operations. Successful counterinsurgency requires close working relationships with rural Afghans to help build schools, roads and bring about other improvements.

Asked if it was possible to take all American forces out of villages by 2013 and still train Afghan security forces and conduct counterinsurgency operations, a senior American defense official replied, “It’s not clear that we would be able to.”

Mr. Karzai declaration came in reaction to widespread Afghan anger over the massacre by an American soldier of 16 civilians in Kandahar on Sunday, and the decision of the military authorities to remove the soldier from Afghanistan, which was reported on Wednesday.

The Taliban statement, issued in English and Pashto on an insurgent Web site, said talks with an American representative had commenced over the release of some Taliban members from the Guantánamo Bay prison, but accused the American representative of changing the preconditions for the talks.

The statement did not make clear what preconditions were objectionable, but the statement emphasized that the Taliban were only interested in talking with the Americans, and criticized “propaganda” about the talks that American officials had issued. Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban reached by cellphone at an undisclosed location, said the statement suspending the talks was genuine but declined to discuss it further.

It was unclear if the two developments might have been related. But both came to light just as Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta had left Afghanistan after a tense two-day visit that included talks with Mr. Karzai, and the Afghanistan president’s announcement in particular appeared to be a surprise. On Wednesday, President Obama said in Washington that the timetable for an Afghanistan withdrawal would not change.

Defense officials traveling with Mr. Panetta in Abu Dhabi said that the tone of the meeting between Mr. Karzai and Mr. Panetta was more positive than Mr. Karzai’s statement would indicate, and that he made no demands of the defense secretary — suggesting that the statement was in part aimed at a domestic audience enraged not only by the massacre but also by recent Koran burnings.

The officials acknowledged that Mr. Karzai told Mr. Panetta during their meeting that American troops should be confined to major bases by next year, but the officials sought to publicly tamp down the differences and portray the two countries as working together. “Secretary Panetta said, ‘We’re on the same page here,’ ” the Pentagon press secretary, George Little, quoted Mr. Panetta as telling Mr. Karzai.

Mr. Panetta, speaking to reporters after the meeting, said he had told Mr. Karzai that the military pledged a full investigation of the massacre and would bring the gunman to justice. He said that Mr. Karzai had not brought up the transfer of the suspect, an Army staff sergeant, to Kuwait.

Although the move was likely to further anger Afghans, who had called for him to be tried in their country, Lieutenant Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, the No. 2 American commander in Afghanistan, told reporters that the Afghans had been informed of the move ahead of time, and he said that “their response is that they understood.”

General Scaparrotti said that the American military would likely not make the suspect’s name public until and if he was formally charged. He did not say when that might happen. “We are conscious of due process,” he said.

American officials said in recent weeks that there had been no talks of any substance since January, when Ambassador Marc Grossman, the United States special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and his team last visited the region. Even the meetings held then did little to move the process beyond the “talks about talks” stage, and the Afghan government had not yet begun to play any significant role in the effort, despite statements from Mr. Karzai to the contrary, the officials said.

The main obstacle appeared to be executing the first set of confidence-building measures: A prisoner swap that would transfer five senior Taliban leaders held at Guantánamo to house arrest in Qatar in exchange for a Westerner being held by the insurgents.

The plan faced a series of difficulties, notably uncertainty about what conditions the five Taliban would be living under in Qatar, and American lawmakers on both sides of the political divide expressed deep skepticism about the release of the insurgents.

Faced with substantial political opposition, the Obama administration wanted to wait to release the men until it could get a direct exchange for the Westerner, the American officials said. But it appeared Thursday that the Taliban had grown tired of waiting for the Americans to begin the process, and that the insurgents feared the conditions under which their compatriots would be housed in Qatar would be too restrictive.

“Acknowledging their involvement in Qatar talks was a significant move for the Taliban. They expected that the U.S. would move quickly with confidence-building measures,” said Michael Semple, a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “The transfer of Taliban leaders to Qatar was top on the list. The Taliban announcement of suspending engagement in Qatar is a response to their frustration at the U.S.’s slowness to deliver.”

Mr. Semple said a series of crises to beset the Americans in the Afghanistan conflict since the start of the year had added another layer of uncertainty to the talks, emboldening Taliban hardliners to press back against the peace effort. “The Taliban also believe that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is in disarray and their hardliners want to take advantage of that by launching a new fighting season.”

Still, the Taliban statement appeared to leave open the door to a resumption of the process, terming their move a “suspension.”

Angry over its exclusion from the first round of talks, which involved the Taliban opening a political office in Qatar as well as the proposed prisoner releases, Mr. Karzai’s government has tried to establish its own track for peace talks, saying Saudi Arabia should be an intermediary, and sending its own envoy to Guantánamo to talk to Taliban prisoners.

The Taliban statement repeated previous declarations by the insurgents that they viewed Afghan government officials as puppets of the Americans and would not hold talks with them. “Hamid Karzai, who cannot even make a single political decision without the prior consent of the Americans, falsely proclaimed that the Kabul administration and the Americans have jointly started peace talks with the Taliban,” the statement said.

The Taliban were only at the stage of discussing prisoners and the Qatar office, the statement said, adding, “neither have we accepted any other condition with any other side nor have we conducted any talks with Karzai administration.”

On the withdrawal of American forces to major bases by 2013, Mr. Karzai said that Afghan authorities were capable of taking charge of security in rural areas. The massacre Sunday took place in a rural part of Panjwai District, in southern Kandahar Province.

The shooting suspect has been described by sources as a 38-year-old staff sergeant in the Second Battalion, Third Infantry Regiment, Third Stryker Brigade, Second Infantry Division based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State.

Elisabeth Bumiller contributed reporting from Abu Dhabi, U.A.E.

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