(KABUL, Afghanistan) — There’s no way of getting around the fact that this has been a testing week for U.S. efforts to maintain its continued military presence in Afghanistan.
Following an incident in which a U.S. Army staff sergeant allegedly killed 16 Afghan civilians, as well as what appeared to be an attack on Defense Secretary Leon Panetta when he arrived in Kandahar, the Obama administration was shaken again on Thursday when the Taliban declared it was breaking off impending peace talks because the U.S. had reneged on a promise to release prisoners.
Thursday’s bad news didn’t seem to end there as Afghan President Hamid Karzai, under pressure by his own people to hasten the departure of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan, apparently wants all coalition soldiers out of rural areas and back onto large bases until the planned 2014 withdrawal.
Karzai, who doesn’t have the power on his own to order U.S. and NATO movements, is also insisting that his army and police forces are capable enough now of handling all security responsibilities, which puts the coalition in something of a bind since the general consensus is that the Afghan military is not up to speed yet.
Pulling forces out of Afghan villages now would jeopardize gains made over the last two years since the Taliban is on the verge of mounting its annual spring offensive and could easily take over large swaths of territory without American forces providing resistance.
While these latest demands might be Karzai’s knee-jerk reaction to the shooting of civilians in Panjwayi, it nonetheless puts American negotiators in a tight spot as they try to work out a long-term strategic accord with the Afghan government about what role the U.S. and NATO will play in Afghanistan once all soldiers are withdrawn.
After holding talks with Karzai on Thursday, Panetta didn’t make mention of the latest ultimatums, instead focusing on the administration’s insistence that the timetable for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan wouldn’t be altered despite the series of recent setbacks.
As far as the Taliban backing out of talks with the U.S. is concerned, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday at his daily briefing that there were no promises made to the Taliban about releasing detainees from Guantanamo Bay as a precondition for starting discussions to end the 10-year-long war.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Ben Westcott, CNN
Jessica Ivins, KSL.com
Angela Dewan and Max Blau, CNN