Meanwhile, the Taliban said it was suspending preliminary peace talks with the United States because of Washington’s “alternating and ever-changing position,” and accused U.S. officials of reneging on promises to take meaningful steps toward a prisoner swap.
The statements by Karzai and the Taliban reflect unprecedented strains in the U.S.-Aghan relationship, which reached a low point last month after the burning of Korans by U.S. troops set off a wave of violent protests and retaliatory killings.
Support for the war is slipping both in the United States and among Afghans. Sunday’s massacre of 16 civilians — and the transfer of the staff sergeant believed to be responsible to a U.S. base in Kuwait to await prosecution — further outraged the Afghan people.
The killings “damaged the U.S. and Afghan relationship,” Karzai’s office said. He said foreign troops must withdraw from village outposts and return to large NATO bases, and Afghan troops should assume primary responsibility for security by the end of next year--ahead of the time frame U.S. commanders have endorsed.
Karzai does not have the authority to enforce a pullback of foreign troops, however. And the United States has rebuffed previous demands that it halt night raids, ban private security companies and immediately transfer control of prisons to the Afghan government.
U.S. military officials tout the night raids on the homes of suspected militants, conducted by U.S. and Afghan Special Operations Forces, as essential to defeating the Taliban insurgency. Karzai has complained that the raids cause too many civilian casualties.
The Afghan government hopes the issue can be resolved through a memorandum of understanding, similar to a recent agreement that laid out the terms for the gradual transfer of U.S.-held detainees to Afghan custody. Karzai spokesman Aimal Faizi said the government is insisting that foreign troops be barred from entering Afghan homes and that soldiers obtain search warrants before storming the houses of suspected insurgents.
“There have been very good discussions,” Panetta said Thursday. He said he believes there is a way to “satisfy President Karzai’s concerns and meet our needs as well.”
Earlier, Maj. Gen. Mark Gurganus, the senior Marine commander in southern Afghanistan, said further restrictions on night raids may not be possible. “I don’t know how much more accommodating we can be with what is a critical element of a counterinsurgency fight,” Gurganus said.
Panetta, in his news conference, made no mention of Karzai’s soon-to-be-issued pullback request. But officials later said they were aware of Karzai’s statement.