REPORTING FROM KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- In twin blows to American efforts to wage war and negotiate peace in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai on Thursday demanded a quicker end to the Western combat mission and a pullback of NATO troops from rural areas, while the Taliban movement declared a suspension of dialogue with the United States.
The developments capped a week roiled by word that a U.S. Army sergeant was in custody, accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children, in a rampage in a pair of villages close to his base in southern Afghanistan. Karzai’s office said he told visiting Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that by year’s end, U.S. troops should be garrisoned only in large bases, abandoning outposts in rural districts like Panjwayi, the scene of Sunday’s shooting deaths.
“Afghanistan’s security forces have the capability to provide security in the villages of Afghanistan,” said a statement from Karzai’s office.
The president also called for a significant acceleration of the handover of security responsibilities to Afghan forces, saying NATO should wind down its combat role in 2013 instead of 2014. “Our demand is to speed up this process, and authority should be given to Afghans,” the presidential palace’s statement said.
In the Taliban statement, which was posted on its website and emailed to journalists, the group’s leadership blamed a U.S. representative for presenting conditions that were “unacceptable” and “in contradiction with earlier agreed-upon points.” It did not specify what those conditions were, but said the movement was “compelled to suspend all dialogue with the Americans.”
Three months ago, the Taliban had announced readiness to open an office in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar to try to reach an “understanding” with the United States. The move was seen as a prelude to eventual negotiations, and contacts were under way to try to arrange confidence-building measures such as a prisoner exchange.
The Taliban statement made no mention of the Kandahar killings, or of last month’s burning of Korans in the garbage pit at a U.S. base, though it had furiously denounced both episodes. U.S. officials said the burning of the holy books was a mistake, and Panetta had said that the American sergeant, if convicted of the shooting deaths, could face the death penalty.
The Taliban statement also said that it would be “pointless” to engage in any contacts with the Karzai government, which has long tried to bring the insurgents to the bargaining table. Karzai had complained of being left out of the loop on plans to open the Qatar office, but eventually agreed to go along with it.
-- Laura King
Photo: Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, right, talks with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta during their meeting in Kabul, Afghanistan March 15. Credit: Mohammad Ismail / EPA