KABUL—The U.S. strategy in Afghanistan suffered a double blow on
Thursday, as President Hamid Karzai made a surprise demand that the U.S.
and its allies pull their troops from villages into bases, and the
Taliban said they suspended their negotiations with the U.S.
Mr. Karzai's request, issued after a meeting with U.S. Defense
Secretary Leon Panetta in Kabul, demands a virtual end to the U.S.
combat role in Afghanistan more than a year ahead of schedule, derailing
U.S. military campaign plans just as the annual fighting season begins.
The Afghan president made the move amid widespread outcry over the
shooting on Sunday of 16 Afghan civilians, most of them women and
children, allegedly by a rogue U.S. Army staff sergeant. The U.S. on
Wednesday angered Afghan officials, who had pressed for a public trial
in Afghanistan, by flying the suspect to Kuwait.
Pursuing a political settlement with the Taliban while gradually
transferring security responsibilities to Afghan forces are the twin
pillars of President Barack Obama's strategy for winding down the war in
Afghanistan. Both approaches were undermined on Thursday by the near
simultaneous statements from Mr. Karzai and the Taliban high command.
The Taliban, whose representatives have held discussions with U.S.
officials for months, said they were suspending the process because the
U.S. "turned back on their promises," such as exchanging senior Taliban
officials held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for a Western prisoner in
Taliban hands. U.S. officials say no decision had been made on the
U.S. officials played down the significance of Mr. Karzai's
statement. A senior defense official said Mr. Panetta's meeting with Mr.
Karzai wasn't contentious, and that the Afghan president didn't demand
an immediate pullout from the villages during the talks in Kabul.
"We believe the statement reflects President Karzai's strong interest
in moving forward with sovereign Afghanistan as soon as possible," said
Pentagon press secretary George Little. "We share President Karzai's
interest. We believe it needs to be done in a responsible manner."
An Afghan official explained on Thursday that Mr. Karzai believed
that coalition force presence in the Afghan countryside now causes more
harm than good.
"When he said they must be withdrawn from the villages now, he didn't
mean tomorrow or next month, but he meant that they must be redeployed
to big bases as soon as practicable," the official said.
He added that the Afghan government still wanted the coalition forces to act in support of the Afghan troops when necessary.
Mr. Obama on Wednesday affirmed plans to shift U.S. forces to an
advisory role next year—a shift that would give Afghan forces the lead
in combat operations, but wouldn't remove all U.S. troops from combat.
Mr. Obama plans to pull out most of the 90,000 U.S. troops in
Afghanistan by late 2014.
Many in Afghanistan reacted with shock to Mr. Karzai's statement. "We
totally don't understand Karzai's decision. He doesn't have any
strategy. He is committing treason," said Abdulrahim Ayubi, a lawmaker
from the southern Kandahar province, where Sunday's massacre occurred.
One U.S.-led coalition official described Mr. Karzai's request as a "bombshell."
A Western official said Mr. Karzai's demand for a coalition troop
pullback "represents the sense of frustration, not necessarily the
common sense," adding that the Afghan president understands it is
unattainable in the immediate future. A senior U.S. defense official
said allied commanders aren't planning any changes in coalition
As part of the transition process, the U.S. and Afghanistan are
negotiating a strategic partnership pact on what American presence will
remain in the country after 2014.
Partnership talks have stumbled over the issue of night raids of
villages by U.S. Special Operations Forces, with Mr. Karzai insisting
that such raids must stop immediately. Military officials argue that the
tactic is crucial in the war against the Taliban.
Mr. Karzai has repeatedly demanded an end to such raids in the past,
and on Thursday went even further. "Not a single foreign soldier should
enter Afghan homes, and the entire attention should switch to the
country's reconstruction and economic assistance," his statement said.
While calling on the U.S.-led coalition to transfer security
responsibilities "by 2013 instead of 2014," Mr. Karzai also said
"Afghanistan is right now ready to completely take all security
responsibilities, so we demand a speedy transition and the hand-over of
authority to the Afghans."
Some analysts said they thought that Mr. Karzai made the demands as a
ploy to strengthen his hand in negotiations with the U.S. over the
strategic partnership agreement.
If so, he may have badly miscalculated, said Candace Rondeaux, a
Kabul-based senior analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank.
"Karzai in some ways has overestimated his hand," she said. "There is
extreme frustration on both sides and the trust deficit will only widen
as the result."
Mr. Karzai is likely to quietly drop his demand for an immediate
troop pullback "when he confronts the reality of what those moves would
likely mean for Afghanistan's overall security situation," said Brian
Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a
think-tank close to the Obama administration.
The Taliban, meanwhile, said they intend to keep fighting until the
last foreign soldier leaves the country. The insurgents, who say they
refuse to negotiate with Mr. Karzai, added that they were upset that Mr.
Karzai claimed, in a Wall Street Journal interview last month, that he
had begun joint peace talks with the U.S. and the Taliban.
The insurgents said the only issues on the negotiating table with the
U.S. were the prisoner exchange and the opening of a Taliban office in
the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar. The talks were postponed "until the
Americans clarify their stance on the issues concerned and until they
show willingness in carrying out their promises instead of wasting
time," the Taliban said.
Western officials briefed on the talks say the Taliban, who thought
they had reached a preliminary agreement on the prisoner exchange with
the U.S., were surprised as Washington made new demands, such as
including Mr. Karzai's administration in the process.
Plans for the transfer to Qatar of Taliban detainees at Guantanamo
have met opposition in Congress, with Sen. John McCain, during a visit
to Kabul last month, describing it as "a huge mistake."
The U.S. says that for the Taliban to open an office in Qatar, they
must renounce international terrorism and support a political process
involving all Afghans, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said Thursday.
"We remain prepared to continue discussions," an embassy spokesman
said. "We have only one goal, opening the door for Afghans to sit down
with other Afghans to determine the future of Afghanistan."
Source: Wall Street Journal (USA)