KABUL – The Taliban suspended negotiations with the United States on Thursday and Afghan President Hamid Karzai called on foreign troops to withdraw from villages – the latest setbacks to U.S. policy in Afghanistan after a soldier from Joint Base Lewis-McChord allegedly killed 16 villagers Sunday.
Karzai said international troops should remain on their bases, according to a statement from his office – a move that could sharply curtail the forces’ ability to train Afghan soldiers and police and to carry out counterinsurgency operations, two pillars of the Obama administration’s exit strategy.
Karzai also called for transferring security responsibilities from U.S.-led coalition forces to Afghan soldiers and police by next year, a year earlier than scheduled.
About 2,500 soldiers from the same Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade as the murder suspect were sent to Afghanistan in December. They are on the ground in the largely rural southern provinces of Kandahar, Zabul and Ghazni, where their mission revolves around the kind of training that Karzai said he would suspend.
The base south of Tacoma is gearing up to send another 5,000 to 6,000 soldiers from this and another Stryker brigade to the same provinces this spring.
U.S. officials downplayed Karzai’s comments, which he made after meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Kabul. One senior defense official said the Afghan leader “didn’t make any demands” in his meeting with Panetta.
Still, the statements appeared to put more pressure on U.S. officials to wind down the war even as concerns mount about the success of the training mission and the durability of the gains that American-led coalition forces have made against Taliban insurgents, particularly in southern Afghanistan.
Unrest has increased in the south since the weekend shooting spree. The suspect, a 38-year-old Army staff sergeant who is expected to be charged in the coming days, was flown to Kuwait Wednesday – a move that angered some Afghans, who had called for him to be tried in Afghanistan.
Several hundred people demonstrated Thursday in Zabul province over the incident, according to the provincial police chief.
White House spokesman Jay Carney sidestepped questions about Karzai’s comments, saying the U.S. remains committed to its timetable for withdrawal but leaving open the option of changes in details, such as when the allies turn over parts of the country to Afghan forces.
President Barack Obama has suggested that U.S. forces would transition to a supporting role by next year and Afghan forces would be placed fully in control of security operations in 2014.
More damaging to the administration’s efforts, perhaps, was the statement by the Taliban saying they had suspended the opening of their office in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar – which U.S. officials had described as a breakthrough on the way to a political settlement to the conflict – because they had lost faith in their American interlocutors.
U.S. officials have held secret talks with the Taliban for months, aiming to pave the way to Taliban negotiations with Karzai’s government, but the insurgent group said that an American representative in their most recent meeting had presented “a list of conditions … which were not acceptable.” It described the American negotiators as “shaky, erratic and vague.”
Carney denied that the United States had changed the terms of talks with the Taliban, saying they need to renounce support for al-Qaida and lay down their weapons before negotiations could proceed.
The Taliban described talking to the Kabul administration as “pointless,” and while they made no explicit mention of the rampage that killed 16 villagers Sunday in Kandahar province, the statement blasted the international troop presence and said the Taliban “will not tolerate it in the present shape nor … in the shape of permanent bases.”
Afghan officials called the Taliban’s comments “very irresponsible” but worried that the fledgling talks had suffered a blow.
“The peace process is a very fragile process. It can be broken very easily,” said Mohammad Ismail Qasemyar, a member of the government’s High Peace Council, which is tasked with leading reconciliation efforts with the insurgency.
The News Tribune contributed to this report.