American officials are reacting cautiously after Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced on Thursday that he had asked foreign troops to be withdrawn from Afghan villages and confined to large military bases.
Karzai apparently made the surprise request in a meeting with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who was visiting to try to defuse tensions after a string of inflammatory incidents—chief among them, the March 12 shooting rampage by a U.S. staff sergeant in Kandahar province that killed 16 Afghans, including nine children.
But Karzai's request apparently took the Americans by surprise.
Panetta believes the request "reflects President Karzai's strong interest in moving as quickly as possible to a fully independent and sovereign Afghanistan," Pentagon spokesman George Little said in a statement sent to Yahoo News on Thursday.
But he "believes that we have made good progress thus far in both security gains and transition, and that it is important for us to remain focused on those efforts in the months ahead," Little added.
The requested troop pullback, if implemented, would "essentially end the U.S. combat role just as the annual Taliban spring offensive begins," the Wall Street Journal's Afghanistan editor Yaroslav Trofimov wrote. NATO-led forces are currently due to turn over combat responsibilities to Afghan security forces by the middle of 2013, and to be withdrawn from the country by the end of 2014.
And while the NATO-led command was still digesting the implications of Karzai's request, the Americans got more bad news: The Taliban announced they were suspending reconciliation talks with the United States. The United States sees the peace talks as a key part of their overall exit strategy. But the Afghan insurgent group said Thursday they were putting the talks on hold, complaining that the Americans were "shaky, erratic and vague."Read More »from Karzai makes surprise request to pull U.S. troops from Afghan villages