ABU DHABI — The United States and NATO should pull all their troops out of Afghan villages, where many are conducting training or stability operations, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in a statement released after a meeting on Thursday with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Just minutes before, Panetta had said in a Kabul press conference that despite a series of missteps and violent incidents, U.S.-Afghan cooperation has never been stronger.
Karzai’s subsequent statement caught U.S. officials off guard and may have thrown a wrench into the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, which focuses on international troops working closely with Afghan forces to train them to take over the fight against the Taliban, while protecting Afghan civilians.
And in another blow to the U.S. campaign, a key feature of recent U.S. policy seemingly collapsed when the Taliban said they were no longer willing to engage in peace talks with the United States aimed at political reconciliation within Afghanistan.
According to a translation of Karzai’s statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, a mass murder last Sunday of 16 Afghan civilians attributed to a U.S. soldier “has broken the trust of the Afghan people towards the international forces.”
“Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are capable to provide security for Afghan villages,” Karzai’s statement said.
The Pentagon soon rebutted interpretations that Karzai wanted an immediate pullback. Officials declared that the Afghan president’s statement was in line with President Barack Obama’s strategy of NATO forces transferring the lead role for security operations to Afghan forces throughout the country by mid-2013, and then transferring to a training and advisory mode prior to a final drawdown at the end of 2014.
“We believe that the statement reflects president Karzai’s strong interest in moving as quickly as possible to a fully independent and sovereign Afghanistan,” Pentagon press secretary George Little said Thursday in Abu Dhabi, where Panetta was discussing defense matters with kingdom officials. “We believe that we need to continue to work together because that’s an American goal as well.”
The American reading may be based on another section of Karzai’s statement — seemingly inconsistent with the call for immediate troop pullback — which says the “security transition” should be completed by 2013. The term has been used in recent months by Obama to refer to the the U.S. goal of a handover of lead security responsibility throughout the country in 2013.
“The secretary believes the United States and Afghanistan are on the same page with respect to the strategy,” Little said.
Foreign policy experts said Karzai’s statement shouldn’t be taken at face value.
“The fact is, like a lot of Karzai’s demands, you don’t know how real it is,” said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Regardless, pulling international troops out of Afghanistan’s rural areas is just not practical, Cordesman said. “Afghan forces simply aren’t ready.”
James Carafano, with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said he doesn’t think Karzai meant he wants international troops out of villages and rural areas immediately.
“I think people are misinterpreting it,” Carafano said.
Even if Karzai was calling for an immediate withdrawal of troops from those areas, Carafano said the idea is “wildly, totally impractical” and Karzai likely made the statement to play to a domestic audience wanting to see him stand up to the Americans.
Carafano said incidents like the recent Quran burning are “reflective of the larger truth: That the president’s strategy isn’t working.”
“We’re not building capacity at the pace and scale we need to be successful,” he said, and too much American attention is focused on Kabul.
“We’re not nation building. It’s not about making a Kabul that will control the countryside. ... It’s about allowing people to protect themselves from the Taliban.”
After talking with Karzai, but before the statement was issued, Panetta said he expected the two countries to ink a strategic partnership agreement before a NATO summit in May.
The agreement would outline security cooperation that will persist past 2014. It means U.S. troops, though in far smaller numbers than nearly the 91,000 in Afghanistan now, could stay as trainers, or for complex assignments like medevac operations and precision artillery fire.
Where the initiative now stands is an open question.
The confounding Karzai message was a fitting end to a strange and eventful two-day visit by the secretary to Afghanistan. It began when an Afghan man in a stolen pickup apparently tried to run down Marines waiting for Panetta’s plan on the tarmac at Helmand Province’s Bastion Airfield.
The man, who appeared to set himself on fire after crashing the truck, died early Thursday before military officials could interview him about why he did it.
The incident took place around the time Panetta’s plane landed, forcing it to taxi onto a different runway to avoid the disturbance.
At the press conference held immediately before he left the country, Panetta said he didn’t think he’d been the target of an assassination attempt. Officials earlier in the day had said it was likely a coincidence that the car thief targeted the particular Marines awaiting Panetta.
“I have no reason to believe any of this was directed at me,” the secretary said.