KABUL: President Hamid Karzai called on Thursday for Nato troops to leave Afghan villages and confine themselves to major bases after the slaughter of 16 villagers by a US soldier, underscoring fury over the massacre and clouding US exit plans.
In a near-simultaneous announcement, the Afghan Taliban said it was suspending nascent peace talks with the United States seen as a way to end the country's decade-long conflict, blaming “shaky, erratic and vague” US statements.
The US government said it remained committed to political reconciliation involving talks with the Taliban but progress would require agreement between the Afghan government and the insurgents.
Karzai, in a statement after meeting US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Kabul on Thursday, said, “international security forces have to be taken out of Afghan village outposts and return to (larger) bases.”
Such a move could undercut President Barack Obama's strategy for Afghanistan, hampering efforts to mentor Afghan police and help with local governance.
The incident has harmed relations between Afghanistan and the United States and Karzai called for “all efforts ... to avoid such incidents in the future.”
The nighttime killings in Kandahar province on Sunday have raised questions about Western strategy in Afghanistan and intensified calls for the withdrawal of foreign combat troops.
The United States played down Karzai's call for Nato to pull out from Afghan villages. Pentagon officials said they did not believe he was calling for an immediate withdrawal to bases and said there was no change in US plans for a gradual transition to Afghan security leadership.
“We believe that this statement reflects President Karzai's strong interest in moving as quickly as possible to a fully independent and sovereign Afghanistan,” Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters with Panetta in Abu Dhabi, where he flew after leaving Kabul earlier on Thursday.
TALIBAN TALKS The Taliban decision to suspend the talks was a blow to Nato hopes of a negotiated end to the war, which has cost the United States $510 billion and the lives of more than 1,900 soldiers.
“The Islamic Emirate has decided to suspend all talks with Americans taking place in Qatar from (Thursday) onwards 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 group said in a statement.
The religious movement said it was compelled to suspend talks as Washington had only responded to its demands, including the release of Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with a list of conditions that were “not only unacceptable, but also in contradiction with the earlier agreed upon points.”