US puts best face on Afghan policy under question

ANNE GEARAN Associated Press Published:

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Obama administration confirmed Friday that President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai spoke by phone amid confusion over Karzai's demand that U.S. forces leave posts in Afghan villages, a key tenet of the current military strategy. But the White House did not immediately confirm Karzai's claim that Obama had called him seeking clarity, and that Karzai had reiterated the demand.

"He asked, 'Did you announce this?'" Karzai told reporters in Kabul. "I said, 'Yes, I announced it.'"

Karzai lashed out at the United States on Friday, saying he is at the "end of the rope" following a massacre of Afghan villagers allegedly carried out by an American soldier stationed in a rural outpost. The soldier's lawyer provided new details of his background, including three tours in Iraq, and claimed the soldier felt double-crossed by the military when sent to Afghanistan last year. The 38-year-old suspect's name has not been released.

The Obama administration is seeking to put the best face on an Afghanistan policy called into question by the announcement from the U.S.-backed Karzai government, and word from the Taliban insurgent movement that it was shelving talks with the Americans.

A senior U.S. official familiar with the discussions said U.S. officials presume that the timing of the Taliban announcement following Sunday's killings is an attempt to gain greater leverage over the United States.

Karzai had demanded Thursday that U.S. troops leave rural Afghan areas and stay on bases until they finish the withdrawal of troops by the end of 2014. The war effort has been set back in recent days by the 16 killings, and earlier by the inadvertent burning of Qurans by U.S. troops.

Although Karzai previously has said he wanted international troops to transition out of rural areas, the apparent call for an immediate exit is new. Karzai also said he wants Afghan forces to take the lead for countrywide security in 2013, which may or may not be in line with a statement Wednesday from President Barack Obama and British Prime Minster David Cameron. They underscored that the aim of the U.S. and its allies was to get out by the end of 2014, but stated for the first time that international forces would hand over the lead combat role to Afghan forces next year.

There was confusion among U.S. military officials and diplomats about just what Karzai was asking, and how far apart he is from current U.S. policy. U.S. officials tried to minimize the differences.

Pentagon press secretary George Little said the issue reflects Karzai's "strong interest in moving toward a fully independent and sovereign Afghanistan as soon as possible."

"We share President Karzai's interest," Little said. "We believe it needs to be done in a responsible manner."

The soldier accused of the shootings was part of far-flung "village stability" operations favored by former war commander Gen. David Petraeus and seen as a central element of the counterinsurgency strategy to build trust and skills among local Afghan forces and neighborhood militias. Although the U.S. has walked away from basic pillars of the counterinsurgency strategy, the policy to keep soldiers working and living alongside rural populations has continued.

It was never popular with Karzai, who has said the insurgent problem in his country springs from support across the border in Pakistan, not from unrest in villages. Critics of the U.S. and NATO military plan long have said that a large military footprint, especially in conservative rural districts, encourages violence and bolsters the Taliban argument that they are fighting a foreign occupier.

U.S. spokesmen said the administration will press on with trying to reconcile Afghanistan's government and Taliban forces willing to renounce terrorism, despite Thursday's announcement by the militants that they were suspending contacts with the United States. The last substantive talks between U.S. officials and Taliban representatives was in January, and two initiatives to build trust and move toward real peace talks are in limbo.

In a statement in English on its website, the Taliban said U.S. negotiators had "turned their backs on their promises and started initiating baseless propaganda." The Taliban also accused the U.S. of making new demands in the talks, a charge White House press secretary Jay Carney denied.

The announcements from Afghanistan on Thursday struck at both elements of the twin-track U.S. exit strategy, which calls for a gradual transfer of security authority to Afghan forces and U.S. talks with Taliban insurgents as a seed for larger political reconciliation talks with the Afghan government.

The Obama administration has endorsed negotiation with the insurgents as the best hope for reaching a political settlement in Afghanistan, and entered secret direct talks with Taliban representatives last year. The talks have foundered before, and several people familiar with the contacts characterized the latest news as a temporary but expected setback. They spoke on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive diplomacy.

"There is no likely resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan without a political resolution," Carney said. "Our conditions for participation in that process by the Taliban have been clear in terms of the reconciliation. Those who would be reconciled need to lay down their arms, renounce al-Qaida (and) promise to abide by the Afghan constitution. And we continue to support that process."

In claiming that the U.S. had failed to deliver of past promises, the Taliban were referring to a plan the U.S. has backed publicly to open a Taliban political office in the Gulf state of Qatar, as the Taliban had requested. That plan, although reluctantly endorsed by Karzai, apparently has been delayed by an internal Taliban debate about a public renunciation of international terrorism and U.S. objection to the Taliban plan to brand the office the representative of the "Islamic Emirate" of Afghanistan.

The U.S. has made that renunciation a condition for opening the office, and considers that title illegitimate.

The Taliban also seek release of five prisoners held at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The AP previously has reported that the U.S. agreed in principle to transfer the prisoners to custody in Qatar, and U.S. officials have publicly acknowledged the idea is in play. The Taliban statement said the U.S. side has "initially agreed upon taking practical steps regarding the exchange of prisoners," but complained that the Americans are now "wasting time."

The Taliban have maintained they want to negotiate only with the United States, the largest donor and largest military force in Afghanistan, instead of the Karzai government. The Associated Press previously reported that the U.S. side had agreed to greater Afghan government participation in future talks. That shift appears to underlie the Taliban claim of a change in terms, although their statement was not specific.

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Associated Press Writer Julie Pace contributed to this report.