The U.S. mission in Afghanistan suffered twin blows Thursday as Afghan President Hamid Karzai demanded that NATO troops stay out of Afghan villages and the Taliban suspended peace talks.
Afghans also responded angrily to news that a U.S. soldier accused of killing 16 civilians, including women and children, had been flown to Kuwait on Wednesday night.
In Kabul, Mr. Karzai told visiting Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta that he wanted U.S. and NATO troops out of rural areas and Afghan security forces to take the security lead in the country by 2013, one year ahead of schedule.
President Obama has said U.S. combat troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
“Afghan security forces have the ability to keep the security in rural areas and in villages on their own,” Mr. Karzai said in a statement.
Afghan officials said the demand was a consequence of the Sunday shooting spree in Kandahar when a U.S. soldier shot 16 civilians in a village near his base.
Muhammad Naeem Lalai Hamidzai, chairman of the Afghan parliamentary committee on internal security affairs, said he was in favor of a NATO troop pullback.
“The only way to stop incidents like what happened in Kandahar from ever happening again is to give our security forces the lead role,” Mr. Hamidzai said in a phone interview, but he was skeptical about the ability of the poorly trained and equipped Afghan forces to confront the Taliban.
Women feel unsafe
In provinces where Afghan security forces have taken the lead, Afghans, particularly women, say they feel unsafe. “We had a high number of women’s groups that were very active in those provinces. Now they do not feel secure,” said Asila Wardak Jamal, director of Human Rights and Women’s International Affairs in the Afghan Foreign Ministry.
“Imagine what will happen if international troops leave Afghanistan,” she said in a phone interview.
It is unclear how Mr. Karzai’s demand will affect the practice of night raids, in which teams of NATO and Afghan soldiers go from door to door hunting for terrorists in civilian neighborhoods.
U.S. commanders say these raids have been useful in disrupting Taliban networks. Afghans view the raids as demeaning and intrusive, and Mr. Karzai has demanded that they be terminated.
The Taliban put off peace talks after saying that Washington had failed to meet its demand for the release of five high-value detainees at the U.S. military detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In a statement emailed to reporters, the Taliban accused the U.S. of shifting the goal posts for reconciliation.
The militants said the talks had been suspended “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 five Taliban detainees are: Abdul Haq Wasiq, a former deputy minister of intelligence; Norullah Noori, a former governor of Balkh province in the north; Mohammed Fazl, the Taliban army’s chief of staff; Khairullah Khairkhwa, the former governor of Herat province in the west; and Mohammad Nabi Omari, the Taliban’s communications chief.
Last week, an Afghan delegation met with the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and said they agreed to be transferred to Qatar, where the Taliban opened an office in January.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday that no decision had been made on transferring the detainees.
“Any discussions about transfers, were they to come at any future time, obviously have to be consulted with the Congress as well,” she said. “And we’re not at that stage.”
The delay has frustrated proponents of reconciliation in the ranks of the Taliban and emboldened militants who oppose peace talks and want to commence their spring offensive.
U.S. conditions ‘unacceptable’
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the United States presented a list of conditions that were “not only unacceptable, but also in contradiction with the earlier agreed-upon points.”
The Taliban, which imposed brutal control over Afghanistan, sheltered al Qaeda until the U.S. deposed the regime after the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.
“We must categorically state that the real source of obstacle in talks was the shaky, erratic and vague standpoint of the Americans; therefore, all the responsibility for the halt also falls on their shoulders,” Mr. Mujahid said.
He did not respond to an email seeking clarification on what conditions the U.S. added that the Taliban found unacceptable.
The U.S. and the Afghan governments have called for the Taliban to disarm, renounce the al Qaeda terrorist network and respect the Afghan Constitution.
Afghan officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity citing the sensitive nature of the discussions, said the Taliban statement likely referred to a U.S. demand that the Karzai government be part of the peace talks.
The Taliban publicly refuse to talk with the Karzai government, which it derisively refers to as a “puppet.”
On Thursday, Mr. Mujahid said Mr. Karzai “cannot even make a single political decision without the prior consent of the Americans.”
The U.S. favors an Afghan-to-Afghan dialogue, said Ms. Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman.
“Our goal is to work ourselves out of a job if we possibly can,” she said. “Our only goal is to get Afghans to sit down together.”
Opponents of peace within the Taliban have been strengthened by a series of calamities involving U.S. troops.
In January, an Internet video showed four U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of three Taliban fighters, and in February, U.S. soldiers accidentally burned Korans at a military base. Six U.S. servicemen were killed in the backlash that followed the Koran burnings.
The U.S. soldier accused of the Kandahar shootings Sunday was flown to Kuwait on Wednesday night. The decision further stoked Afghan anger.