The Taliban broke off confidence-building talks with the Americans on Thursday and the Afghan president ordered U.S. troops out of villages, demanding control in 2013.
“It was due to their alternating and ever-changing position that the Islamic Emirate was compelled to suspend all dialogue with the Americans,” the Taliban said on their website, according to AFP news agency.
Although the Taliban made no mention of an unprecedented shooting spree by an American soldier who killed 16 Afghan civilians on Sunday, it is believed the incident, alongside last month’s burning of Qurans at a U.S. base has frayed Afghan-U.S. ties.
In Kabul, visiting U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Karzai gave radically different versions of talks between the two men, after the Americans insisted that recent events would not see U.S.-led NATO combat troops withdraw earlier than scheduled in 2014.
“We’re ready to take over all security responsibilities now,” Karzai’s spokesman Aimal Faizi quoted him as telling Panetta. “We’d prefer that the process be completed in 2013, not 2014,” he told AFP.
Karzai then told Panetta that U.S.-led international forces should “be withdrawn from villages and relocated in their bases,” his office said.
It was not immediately clear how many American bases may be affected by Karzai’s demand, as the United States previously disbanded a number of outposts in a bid to concentrate on securing major towns from Taliban influence.
Nor was there any immediate response from NATO or Panetta, who told reporters after his Karzai talks that he was “confident” both sides could work out a treaty allowing a U.S. military presence in the country beyond 2014.
The defense chief said he was optimistic that both sides would reach an agreement on controversial night raids − a major issue blocking the treaty − ahead of a NATO summit in Chicago in May.
Karzai objects to the raids on the grounds that they violate the sanctity of Afghan families in their own homes and that they are responsible for many civilian deaths − a claim the U.S. disputes.
The treaty being negotiated is supposed to cover Afghan-U.S. relations beyond 2014, with the United States reportedly keen to maintain a foothold in a country to help prevent it from once again becoming a haven for al-Qaeda.
Analysts fear Sunday’s shootings could complicate talks on a possible long-term U.S. troop presence, as the government has so far refused to grant them legal immunity − the same issue that scuppered a U.S. strategic pact with Iraq.
Panetta said he promised Karzai that the gunman would be brought to justice and that the Pentagon would look at what circumstances may have caused the incident − including the possible effect of combat stress on troops.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials declined to comment Thursday on why the Taliban had suspended contacts with American representatives in Qatar, even before a nascent bid to promote peace talks got off the ground.
“Reconciliation is an Afghan-led process and it needs to stay that way. I don’t think we’re going to comment or characterize the Taliban statement,” Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters in Abu Dhabi, where US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived for talks after a two-day visit to Afghanistan.
A U.S. defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “I can’t guess what the Taliban’s motivations were.”