The United States came under pressure from two
Afghan fronts on Thursday, with President Hamid Karzai asking foreign
soldiers to leave a year earlier than planned and angry Taliban
insurgents suspending ongoing talks in Qatar.
Both developments, which came on the day that U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta was in Kabul, are major setbacks for Washington. Not only do they raise concerns about the NATO-led alliance's Afghan transition plan, they also highlight the fallout caused by the US soldier's deadly rampage in an Afghan village earlier this week.
In his meeting with Panetta in Kabul, Karzai also called on foreign troops to leave Afghan villages and "not enter an Afghan house" in military operations.
His request follows year-long calls for an end to Western night raid operation - the only sticking point remaining in a U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership agreement.
A senior military official says Karzai should be careful about what he wishes for.
"All the military gains could unravel. If the foreign troops are not allowed to enter Afghan houses and there are no night raids, what is their operation going to look like?" the official said on condition of anonymity.
Another retired Afghan government official says Karzai might be making a mistake.
"He might think he will gain a couple of (percentage) points in terms of popular support from Afghan voters. But it could seriously damage his relationship with the West while losing ground on the home front," the official told dpa.
"If foreign troops move out of the villages, the Taliban will come back, no doubt about it," he says.
Nevertheless, it appears that this week's massacre by a US soldier of 16 Afghan civilians, most of them women and children, was the last straw for Karzai and many Afghans.
On Monday, the Afghan parliament issued a statement saying its patience was running out as a result of "the imprudence of foreign troops."
Last month, the burning of copies of the Koran by US soldiers at an army base prompted violent protests that left more than 30 Afghans dead. Before that, an undated video surfaced in January that apparently showed US soldiers urinating on dead militants.
The Taliban did not mention any of those incidents as the reason for their suspension of the talks in Qatar. Neither did they quit the process outright, insisting that the Americans first "show a willingness to carry out their promises instead of wasting time."
The announcement in January that the Taliban had opened an office in the Gulf state of Qatar had raised hopes of possible peace negotiations.
Analysts and officials in Kabul are now speculating that the decision to suspend the talks might have been prompted by the West's failure to satisfy their request for a prisoner exchange, which the Taliban call a "confidence-building measure."
Under a deal, the insurgents would have handed over a US soldier held since 2009 in exchange for five top insurgent leaders currently incarcerated at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.
Last week, the prisoners were supposed to have been transferred to Qatar. However, there has been tremendous pressure in the US against any such move.
In a statement, the Taliban blamed the "shaky, erratic and vague standpoint of the Americans," who they say had failed to fulfill a previously agreed memorandum of understanding.
"The fact that the Taliban suspended and not ended the talks means they will resume it," a diplomat said of the statement.
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