The political fallout from the March 11 shooting of 16 civilians, allegedly by an American soldier, is threatening the dual pillars of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, U.S. officials and regional experts said.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai told visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta yesterday that U.S.-led coalition forces should leave rural areas of Afghanistan and withdraw to major bases, according to a statement from Karzai’s office. Such a move could hobble the U.S.-led international effort to weaken the Taliban enough to enable Afghan security forces to take over the fight, one U.S. defense official said.
In addition, the Taliban yesterday suspended efforts to start peace talks with the U.S., charging that the American position is “shaky, erratic, and vague” in a “declaration” posted on a Taliban website.
President Barack Obama called Karzai today to congratulate him on the birth of his daughter and discuss issues in dispute, such as U.S. military “night raids,” according to a White House statement today. Obama agreed to hold further discussions with Karzai about deployments of U.S. and coalition troops in rural villages, said White House press secretary Jay Carney.
“The two leaders did discuss President Karzai’s concern” about U.S. forces in Afghan villages as part of plans already under way to transfer security responsibility over the next two years, Carney told reporters traveling with Obama aboard Air Force One. “The two men were very much on the same page.”
Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the administration has talked about two routes to an acceptable outcome in Afghanistan: “We hand off to the Afghans and they wage the war to a finish, or we negotiate a settlement with the Taliban.”
“The option of handing an ongoing war off to the Afghans and having them wage it to a finish, I think, is dead in the water” since that assumes the U.S.-led coalition will “knock down the viability” of the Taliban, he said yesterday on a call with reporters.
With the plans for a troop drawdown between now and 2014, he said, “what we’re really doing is we’re moving the likely outcome of that negotiation in the Taliban’s favor, rather than ours.”
Violence Toward Civilians
Karzai’s comments and the Taliban declaration came four days after a U.S. soldier allegedly killed at least 16 Afghan civilians, including women and children, in southern Kandahar province. In his statement, Karzai said violent incidents against Afghan civilians such as the one in Kandahar, “have impacted the relations between Afghanistan and America, and great actions must be taken in the future to prevent other violence toward civilians.”
Two U.S. officials responsible for Afghan policy yesterday dismissed Karzai’s statement and the Taliban declaration as combinations of political posturing and negotiating tactics. A third U.S. official called the Afghan leader’s remarks internally inconsistent, saying Afghan forces are ready to take over from NATO’s International Security Assistance Force now while also talking about a 2013 handover. All three spoke on the condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorized to speak on the record.
‘Ready to Take Over’
“International troops should leave their bases in rural areas and villages and consolidate in their main bases,” Karzai said, according to the Pashto-language announcement posted on the Afghan presidency’s website.
“Afghanistan is currently ready to take over all the security responsibilities in the country,” Karzai added. “So we demand a faster security transition for Afghan forces.”
Panetta has seen Karzai’s statement and “believes it reflects President Karzai’s strong interest in moving as quickly as possible to a fully independent and sovereign Afghanistan,” said George Little, the defense secretary’s spokesman.
Panetta’s meetings with Karzai, Afghan Interior Minister Bismillah Mohammadi and Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak in Kabul “very detailed and productive,” Little said.
Marine General John Allen, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, told CNN on March 11 that the campaign there is “sound” and “solid.”
Yet, two U.S. officials said the effort is jeopardized by two potentially more serious developments: Afghan government insistence that NATO forces stop “night raids” on suspected insurgents’ hideouts, and the Pakistani parliament’s threats to halt all U.S. drone flights over border areas which provide havens and supply routes for the Taliban.
One of those officials said the raids and the CIA’s drone missions to collect intelligence and kill members of the Taliban, al-Qaeda and allied groups in their sanctuaries in Pakistan’s tribal areas are essential to the U.S. strategy.
If both were halted, one of the officials said, there would be little chance of handing Afghan forces a situation they could manage by the Obama administration’s 2014 target date, much less the 2013 mentioned yesterday by Karzai.
The larger obstacle to success, a U.S. intelligence official said yesterday, is a growing perception by Karzai, the Taliban, the Pakistanis and others that the U.S. and its European allies will leave Afghanistan sooner rather than later.
A new Gallup poll released yesterday found that 50 percent of Americans surveyed say the U.S. should accelerate its withdrawal from Afghanistan, while 21 percent say American forces should remain until the mission there is accomplished. The poll, which questioned by telephone 1,006 people on March 13, had a sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
As a result, the official said, all sides appear to be jockeying for position in the aftermath of a withdrawal by the International Security Assistance Force. Karzai is denouncing international actions in a bid for popular support, Pakistan is hardening its opposition to drones for similar political reasons, and the Taliban is waiting to retake control, as seen in a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate last December.
In the statement posted on one of their websites yesterday, the Taliban said: “We are not going to abandon the struggle for our freedom and will not pardon you until the withdrawal of your last soldier and until you let the Afghans establish an Islamic government for themselves.”