Karzai asks Nato to quit Afghan villages
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 soldier accused of carrying out the shooting was attached to a small special forces compound similar to others around the country which underpin Nato's anti-insurgent strategy ahead of a 2014 deadline for Western combat forces to pull out.
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 spokesperson George Little told reporters with Panetta in Abu Dhabi, where he flew after leaving Kabul earlier on Thursday.
Germany - which has the third largest contingent of Nato troops in Afghanistan - also played down the likely impact.
But in Washington, Republican senators opposed to an early withdrawal from Afghanistan said Karzai's demands would doom to failure the plan for a transition to Afghan control over the next two years.
Senator John McCain, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said it was a losing strategy he could not agree to, a view echoed by Senator Lindsey Graham.
"We tried that in Iraq, where we stayed on bases, and Iraq devolved into chaos," Graham told reporters. "Fighting ... behind a wire, you can't fight effectively."
He said the US forces were out in the villages to mentor Afghan police, train the army and help with governance.