Taliban suspend talks with U.S.; Karzai calls for faster transition

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 15, 2012 

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban suspended negotiations with the United States on Thursday and Afghan President Hamid Karzai called on international troops to withdraw from villages in the latest apparent setbacks to U.S. policy in Afghanistan after an American soldier allegedly killed 16 villagers Sunday.

After meeting with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Kabul, 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.

The moves are part of the Pentagon's broad transition plan, and U.S. officials downplayed Karzai's comments, with one senior defense official saying that the Afghan leader "didn't make any demands" in his meeting with Panetta. The official wasn't authorized to be quoted by name.

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.

White House spokesman Jay Carney sidestepped questions about Karzai's comments, saying the U.S. remains committed to the existing 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.

"As we've always said, the pace of withdrawal, the nature of deployments, how quickly certain territories in Afghanistan are turned over … those decisions will be made closer to the ground and will depend on conditions as the weeks and months go on," Carney said in Washington.

More damaging to the administration's efforts, perhaps, was the statement by the Taliban saying they'd 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'd 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."

The Taliban have "decided to suspend all talks with Americans taking place in Qatar from today onwards until the Americans clarify their stance on the issues concerned," the statement said. 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.

"We're not going to get into great detail about every conversation we've had or meeting we've had with the various parties. But we broadly support a process here that is essential to the long-term resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan," Carney said.

The U.S. effort to kick-start talks has made only fitful progress, with one of the key early stumbling blocks a Taliban demand that the United States release some prisoners it's holding at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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.

Unrest has increased in southern Afghanistan since the shooting spree. The suspect, a 38-year-old Army staff sergeant who's expected to be charged in the coming days, was flown out of the country Wednesday, a move that angered some Afghans, who'd called for him to be tried in Afghanistan. Several hundred people demonstrated Thursday in the southern province of Zabul over the incident, according to the provincial police chief.

Pentagon officials said Thursday that a man who'd driven a stolen truck filled with gasoline canisters onto an airport ramp as Panetta's plane was landing Wednesday in the southern province of Helmand "intended to harm someone" but the target of the attack was unclear.

Navy Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said military officials had no evidence that the man knew Panetta was aboard the plane that had just touched down at Camp Bastion and not yet reached the ramp. Driving at a high speed toward a group that had gathered to welcome Panetta, the truck crashed and the man burst into flames, dying of his injuries before U.S. military officials could question him, Kirby said.

The truck, which he'd stolen half an hour earlier, contained the gasoline, but no explosives, triggers or timers were found at the scene, Kirby said. Separately, 13 Afghan civilians, including nine children, were killed Thursday in the southern province of Uruzgan when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb, local officials said. No group claimed responsibility for the attack.

(Safi is a McClatchy special correspondent. Steven Thomma, Matthew Schofield and Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article from Washington.)

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