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U.S. Downplays Karzai's Call To Pull Back Troops By Next Year

A Pentagon official is downplaying the Afghan president's call for the United States to confine its troops to military bases by next year.

The AP says an unnamed "defense offical" told reporters the United States does not believe that's what President Hamid Karzai is seeking.

"We believe that this statement reflects President Karzai's strong interest in moving as quickly as possible to a fully independent and sovereign Afghanistan," Pentagon spokesman George Little said, according the AP.

Earlier today, Karzai issued a statement after meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. According to Reuters, Karzai said "international security forces have to be taken out of Afghan village outposts and return to (larger) bases." The New York Times said Karzai demanded that happens by next year.

All of this, of course, is the consequence of tensions between the United States and Afghanistan. This past weekend, those tensions were heightened when a U.S. soldier left his base in Kandahar and opened fire, killing 16 Afghan civilians. Afghanistan wanted the suspect to be tried in Afghanistan but the U.S. said yesterday that he had been flown out of the country.

The Times adds that timed closely with Karzai's statement, the Taliban also announced they were suspending negotiations with the Americans. Beginning those talks with the Taliban was seen as an important step in handing off security responsibilities in Afghanistan to Karzai's government. The Times reports:

"It was unclear if the two developments might have been related. But both came to light just as Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta had left Afghanistan after a tense two-day visit that included talks with Mr. Karzai, and the Afghanistan president's announcement in particular appeared to be a surprise. On Wednesday, President Obama said in Washington that the timetable for an Afghanistan withdrawal would not change.

"Mr. Panetta said he had told Mr. Karzai during a Thursday meeting in Kabul that the military pledged a full investigation of the massacre and would bring the shooter to justice. Mr. Panetta told reporters after the meeting that Mr. Karzai had not brought up the transfer of the suspect, an Army staff sergeant, to Kuwait."

Update at 1:46 p.m. ET. What Karzai Means:

The AP is fleshing out Karzai's statement a bit. According to the AP's reading, Karzai is demanding the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from the rural parts of Afghanistan. He added that he wanted Afghan security forces to have complete control of the country by 2013, which would mean an earlier drawdown for the U.S.

Of course, Karzai has in the past made bold pronouncements intended for a domestic audience that he eventually walks back when faced with U.S. pressure.

But Foreign Ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai confirmed Karzai's statement to the AP.

The AP reports:

"Afghan security forces know 'a thousand times better than any foreign troops the culturally sensitive ways of dealing with their own people,' the spokesman said.

"If the NATO troops do pull back, it would leave vast areas of the country unprotected including border areas with Pakistan. It would essentially mean the end of the strategy of trying to win hearts and minds by working with and protecting the local populations."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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