Karzai Calls on U.S. to Pull Back as Taliban Cancel Talks
Mr. Karzai’s abrupt planning shift was at odds with a pledge offered just hours earlier by President Obama to stick to a 2014 withdrawal schedule for troops in Afghanistan. It also ran up against the Pentagon’s stark assessment that Afghan security forces were not yet ready to take over control of the country.
Mr. Karzai’s surprise announcement, which would confine American troops to their bases a year earlier than Mr. Obama proposed, was initially made at a Thursday meeting with Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who spent a fraught two days here apologizing in person to the Afghan president for the massacre of civilians by an American soldier last Sunday at a village in Kandahar Province. Upon Mr. Panetta’s arrival, an Afghan interpreter working for coalition forces crashed a stolen pickup truck near his plane.
Further fraying the United States’ efforts to preserve some degree of control over its exit strategy from Afghanistan, Taliban insurgents announced Thursday that they had broken off preliminary peace talks with the Americans. While the move may have been coincidental, it imperiled another crucial element of the American exit strategy in Afghanistan — brokering peace talks between insurgents and the government.
“International forces should leave the villages and move to their bases,” Mr. Karzai said, according to an account of the meeting released by his office. He also insisted that “both sides should work on a plan to complete the security transition process by 2013 instead of 2014.”
Both Afghan and American officials scrambled to put the best possible face on yet another rift between the two allies, coming at what both hope will be a final stage in negotiations between their diplomats on a long-term strategic partnership, and at a time when some White House officials have been advocating an accelerated withdrawal.
Some pointed out that Mr. Karzai was merely reacting to public anger over the massacre and the move to send the staff sergeant accused of opening fire on civilians out of Afghanistan on Wednesday. They also noted that under the timetable agreed to at a NATO summit in Lisbon in 2010, the transition of responsibility for security from the Americans and NATO partners to Afghan forces already called for foreign forces to adopt a more supportive role by 2013, although they would actively be engaged in combat until 2014, as needed.
“I don’t see how this changes the plan,” said an American official in Afghanistan, speaking on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic guidelines.
During a stop later on Thursday in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Mr. Panetta’s press secretary, George Little, quoted his boss as having told Mr. Karzai, “We’re on the same page here.”
“This is not moving the goal posts,” Ashraf Ghani, a presidential adviser in charge of the transition from NATO to Afghan control, said in an interview. “Everybody will be happy if it can be pushed up assuming conditions are right.”
Mr. Karzai insisted that he was asking for an accelerated transfer of authority for Afghan security from the foreign forces to the Afghans. “Even right now the Afghan security forces are ready to take all security responsibilities,” he said.
His chief of staff, Abdul Karim Khurram, who was at the meeting with Mr. Panetta, said later that it was clearly a matter of asking for a one year acceleration of the transfer of authority. “This was a demand that all security transition would be started in this year and completed in 2013 instead of 2014,” he said.
But Mr. Khurram, believed to be the official closest to the president, added that it was a request that the Americans would have to study. “The Americans will make all the determinations,” he said. “It’s a professional task, and we should prepare the ground for it.”
American defense officials acknowledged there was a major divide between Mr. Karzai’s demand and American goals of training and advising Afghan security forces as well as conducting counterinsurgency operations, which require close working relationships with Afghans in the rural areas where most of them live.
Asked whether those activities could continue with American troops confined to bases, a senior American defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity replied, “It’s not clear that we would be able to.”
Although about half of Afghan territory has formally been transferred from international to Afghan authority, in most of those areas American and other coalition troops continue to operate outside of large bases, and it is unclear how soon they could be removed when Afghan forces still are largely unprepared to operate on their own. According to NATO figures last year, only one of the Afghan National Army’s 158 battalions has been rated as able to fight independently, according to figures compiled by the Brookings Institution; that was up from zero the year earlier. And a Pentagon report to Congress last October said that at least 70 percent of Afghan Army units still needed American assistance in the field as of last September.
“I don’t think they are ready, and I don’t think it would be feasible,” said Stephen Biddle, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has studied the Afghan military. “Presidents of countries are not always military experts, and in particular presidents of host countries in a counterinsurgency where the foreign forces are not particularly popular.”
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 prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, but accused the American representative of changing the preconditions for the talks.
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.
“We remain prepared to continue discussions,” said Gavin A. Sundwall, a spokesman for the American Embassy in Kabul. He said the American position had consistently been that the Taliban had to first “make clear statements distancing itself from international terrorism and in support of a political process among all Afghans to end the conflict.”
American officials said in recent weeks that there had been no talks of any substance since January, when Marc Grossman, the United States special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and his team last visited the region.
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.
During their meeting on Thursday, Mr. Panetta and Mr. Karzai discussed the massacre and Mr. Panetta assured Mr. Karzai of a full investigation. He told reporters after the meeting that Mr. Karzai had not brought up the transfer of the American suspect to Kuwait.
Link to original article from New York Times/Asia Pacific
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