Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Photo by Majid Saeedi/Getty Images.
A rocky few weeks for the United States in Afghanistan got even rockier Thursday with two simultaneous though presumably unrelated events. The Taliban called off talks with the United States, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai demanded that troops pull out of rural areas and return to their main bases by 2013, a year earlier than planned.
The U.S. government and some analysts downplayed the news.
“We believe that this statement reflects President Karzai’s strong interest in moving as quickly as possible to a fully independent and sovereign Afghanistan,” rather than calling for troops to leave Afghan villages immediately, said Pentagon spokesman George Little, according to Reuters.
Afghan public opinion, which Karzai reflects, wants less of a U.S. presence, said Max Boot, senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in a conference call on Thursday. But Afghans also don’t want the Taliban to retake power, he said.
“President Karzai is pulled in conflicting directions,” said Boot. Even though he makes statements about wanting to assert Afghan sovereignty, he also knows that to survive, politically and possibly literally, he needs U.S. help, he said.
Track the levels of U.S. and other nations’ troops in Afghanistan since the November 2001 beginning of the war:
Chart by Justin Myers
Members of the Taliban, meanwhile, also announced Thursday that they were suspending talks with an American representative because the preconditions kept changing. The basic terms for reconciliation are that members of the Taliban must give up violence, break with al-Qaida and accept an Afghan constitution.
A confidence-building measure still under negotiation is the release of five Afghan prisoners from the U.S. military jail in Guantanamo Bay to custody in Qatar.
Karzai is trying to create distance between himself and the United States, said Tufts University professor Vali Nasr, former administration adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan. “Not only to shore up his own political position at home with the Afghan population, but also if you are going to go to the table with the Taliban he needs to show himself (as being) independent, and having reacted appropriately and sternly to these incidents.”
Similarly, the Taliban leadership has been feeling pressure within its ranks among those who don’t back talks with the United States, said Nasr. “If they distance themselves from reconciliation talks and go back to the idea of permanent insurgency against the United States, (they feel) they might get a bigger political advantage.”
“Karzai is known for making dramatic demands then backing off under U.S. pressure,” noted retired Gen. Jack Keane, who was Army vice chief of staff when the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001.
Karzai has “always been very insecure about the fact that many people see him in the country as a puppet of the USA, because while he’s been through two elections, we did put him in power,” said Keane. “I believe the relationship is affected by this.”
Karzai’s remarks came after a U.S. soldier allegedly killed 16 Afghan civilians in a village in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan. The soldier, whose name has not been released, was moved to a U.S. base in Kuwait, the military announced Wednesday.
The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock described what’s known about the U.S. soldier on Tuesday’s NewsHour:
Additional reporting by Daniel Sagalyn. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker is appearing on Thursday’s NewsHour. Due to technical problems, the interview was rescheduled for Friday. View all of our World coverage and follow us on Twitter.