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reacting cautiously after Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced on Thursday that he had asked foreign troops to be withdrawn from Afghan villages and confined to large military bases.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are currently due to turn over combat responsibilities to Afghan security forces by the middle of 2013, and to be withdrawn from the country by the end of 2014.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."
"The Islamic Emirate has 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 Afghan insurgent group said in a statement, McClatchy reported.
American and NATO officials were muted in their public response to both developments Thursday, only the latest in a string of bad news in the 10-year-old war.
Panetta, characteristically, even sought to put an upbeat spin on his meetings with Afghan leaders in Kabul on Thursday, despite an attempted car bomb attack on the runway where his plane was landing in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday. The Afghan civilian who hijacked the vehicle and charged the runway as Panetta's plane was landing died overnight from burns sustained in the attack, the Pentagon said.
"Secretary Panetta enjoyed a very detailed and productive set of discussions in Afghanistan with Interior Minister Mohammadi, Defense Minister Wardak and President Karzai," Little said.
Some experienced Afghan hands said the latest string of grim developments show it's time for western and Afghan governments to reassess the transition plan.
"It is high time that both sides review their interests and strategies and come to an understanding for the sake of a better and safer environment for Afghans," Farid Maqsudi, an Afghan-American businessman who travels frequently to the country as a founding member of the U.S.-Afghan Chamber of Commerce, told Yahoo News by email on Thursday.
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- President Karzai