Karzai demands U.S. troops leave village outposts; Taliban suspends peace talks with U.S.
By Ernesto Londoño and Greg Jaffe, Updated: Thursday, March 15, 7:52 AM
KABUL—Afghan President Hamid Karzai demanded Thursday that the United States pull back from combat outposts and confine its troops to military bases, an apparent response to Sunday’s shooting rampage by a U.S. staff sergeant.
Meanwhile, the Taliban said it was suspending preliminary peace talks with the United States because of Washington’s “alternating and ever changing position,” and accused the U.S. of reneging on promises to take meaningful steps toward a prisoner swap.
The announcements followed a meeting between Karzai and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Kabul, after which U.S. officials said the two sides had made progress discussing the contentious issue of nighttime raids--but did not mention any discussion of a pullback.
The latest developments reflect unprecedented strains in the U.S.-Aghan relationship, which reached a low point last month after the burning of Korans by U.S. troops set off a wave of violent protests and retaliatory killings.
Support for the war is slipping both in the United States and among Afghans. Sunday’s massacre of 16 civilians--and the transfer of the staff sergeant suspected in those killings to a U.S. base in Kuwait--further outraged the Afghan people.
The killings, Karzai’s office said in a statement Thursday, have “damaged the U.S. and Afghan relationship.”
Foreign troops in Afghanistan must withdraw from village outposts and return to large NATO bases, the president’s statement said. Karzai also said he wants Afghan troops to assume primary responsibility for security nationwide by the end of next year, ahead of the time frame U.S. commanders have endorsed.
Karzai does not have the authority to enforce a pullback of foreign troops, however. And the United States has rebuffed previous demands that it halt night raids, ban private security companies and immediately transfer control of prisons to the Afghan government.
U.S. military officials tout the night raids on the homes of suspected militants, conducted by U.S. and Afghan special operations forces, as essential to defeating the Taliban insurgency. Karzai has complained that the raids produce too many casualties.
Karzai’s spokesman said in an interview this week that the Afghan government hopes the issue can be resolved through a memorandum of understanding, similar to a recent agreement that laid out the terms for the gradual transfer of detainees held by the U.S. to Afghan custody. Spokesman Aimal Faizi said the Afghan government is insisting that foreign troops be barred from entering Afghan homes and that soldiers obtain search warrants before storming the houses of suspected insurgents.
“There have been very good discussions,” Panetta said Thursday. He said he believes there is a way to “satisfy President Karzai’s concerns and meet our needs as well.”
Earlier, Maj. Gen. Mark Gurganus, the senior Marine commander in southern Afghanistan, said further restrictions on night raids may not be possible. “I don’t know how much more accommodating we can be with what is a critical element of a counterinsurgency fight,” Gurganus said.
Panetta, in his news conference, made no mention of Karzai’s pullback request. But Lt. Lauren Rago, a spokeswoman for the NATO command in Kabul, said later that the coalition was aware of Karzai’s statement. “This is something that we will continue to discuss through diplomatic channels,” Rago said.
U.S. officials sought to play down the Karzai statement after Panetta’s departure, suggesting it was in synch with their strategy to gradually shift responsibility for security to Afghan forces over the next two years. “Americans and Afghans agree that this is part of the transition plan to which both sides have agreed,” said a U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Taliban announcement that it would suspend negotiations included a statement that it would forgo opening a political office in Qatar, dashing already faint hopes about a negotiated settlement to the decade-long war.
On Thursday, Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasool was on a visit to Qatar, which the Afghan government saw as a potential breakthrough in asserting a role for the Karzai administration in the talks.
The U.S. Embassy spokesman in Kabul did not immediately respond to a phone call and e-mail seeking comment about the Taliban statement, which was posted on its Web site Thursday afternoon.
The Obama administration has been contemplating releasing five Taliban members held in the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, including four senior members of the militant group. The Taliban’s bargaining chip in the swap has been widely assumed to be Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier kidnapped in June 2009.
The Taliban statement said American officials had backtracked on promises to take steps toward as swap, and also had backtracked on an agreement to allow the Doha office to be used for diplomatic purposes.
“With the passage of time, they turned their backs on their promises and started initiating baseless propaganda” that overstated how far along the negotiations were, the Taliban statement said.
The Taliban also took issue with Karzai’s suggestion that his administration was playing a role in the talks. The statement said Karzai “cannot even make a single political decision without the prior consent of the Americans.” It called negotiating with Karzai’s government “pointless.”
The Taliban implied that it would be willing to restart talks if and when the “Americans clarify their stance on the issues concerned and . . . show willingness in carrying out promises instead of wasting time.”
The statement concluded by calling on regional countries and other nations to help the Taliban in “expelling the invaders in order to achieve peace and stability in the whole region.”
Panetta, in his briefing, focused on security gains that the U.S. has made in battling the Taliban, as well as the current Pentagon strategy for gradually turning over primary responsibility for combat operations to Afghan forces by the middle of 2013.
“We are on the right path. I am absolutely convinced of that. But the key is to stay on that path,” Panetta said.
Still, his trip also highlighted the continued turmoil and violence that exists here. As the defense secretary’s plane landed at Camp Bastion on Wednesday, an Afghan translator at the base stole a pickup truck and appeared to use it to try and strike a group of Marines waiting for Panetta on the runway.
He struck and wounded a British soldier while stealing the truck, officials said. He eventually crashed the truck and, apparently, set himself on fire, suffering injuries that proved fatal.
The incident appeared to be the latest in a string of recent attacks aimed at U.S. forces inside secure NATO bases or Afghan government facilities. Six U.S. soldiers were killed in multiple incidents by Afghan soldiers or police following the Koran burning. Sunday’s shooting rampage--and the subsequent transfer of the suspected gunman outside of Afghanistan--prompted new protests, but no known retaliation so far.
Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, a U.S. military spokesman in Kabul, said the Afghan government was notified that the United States intended to fly the shooting suspect out of the country, a step he called “routine standard operating procedure when we are preparing to charge an individual and introduce them into the military justice system.” Cummings said he did not know when charges would be filed.
U.S. officials showed a base surveillance video of the staff sergeant surrendering to Afghan security guards upon his return to his combat outpost. The video, recorded from a spy balloon floating over the outpost, was released as part of an effort to knock down rumors that other U.S. troops might have been involved.
The soldier’s unit is from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, Wash. He will likely face prosecution there if he is charged. A decision on whether to convene a court-martial would be made by an Army general who is in the soldier’s chain of command.
Speaking to U.S. and Afghan troops at Camp Leatherneck, Panetta sought to tamp down worries about the course of the U.S. war effort. “We have been tested time and time again over a decade of war,” Panetta said. “That is the nature of war. . . . Each of these incidents is deeply troubling, and we have to learn lessons from each of these incidents.”
Lt. Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, the No. 2 American commander in Afghanistan, told reporters that U.S. troops would likely continue combat operations in the more violent areas of Afghanistan into 2014. The Obama administration’s goal is to turn over security responsibility to Afghan forces by the fall of 2013.
“I do believe we’ll still be doing combat operations through 2013 into 2014—although in a more limited nature,” Scaparrotti said. Most of those operations, he said, will likely occur in eastern Afghanistan, where enemy forces often escape across the porous border into Pakistan to train and get supplies.
“I think the greatest threat to the campaign’s success is the sanctuary in Pakistan,” Scaparrotti said. “It allows [the enemy] that regeneration. It allows them to train in safety and it is something that will be difficult to deal with as we move forward.”
In Washington, President Obama insisted that “our forces are making very real progress” in Afghanistan, and he reaffirmed a transition plan under which U.S. and NATO troops would withdraw by the end of 2014.
Addressing a joint news conference at the White House with visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron, Obama said, “We’re going to complete this mission, and we’re going to do it responsibly.”
Special correspondent Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.