Afghan President Hamid Karzai has called for U.S. troops to pull back from Afghan villages and relocate to their bases following the killing of 16 civilians in southern Afghanistan earlier this week, allegedly by a U.S. soldier. Mr. Karzai also told visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that the Afghan government wants to take full control of the country's security in 2013 rather than 2014, as planned. During Thursday's talks in Kabul, the Afghan leader told Panetta, "Afghanistan is ready to take over all security responsibilities now."
Panetta said Thursday he is confident that the United States and Afghanistan will reach a deal on the long-term U.S. presence in the country after international combat troops leave Afghanistan in 2014. The United States is also said to be in talks in Qatar with the Taliban to work out a political settlement to the decade-long Afghan war. However, the insurgent group issued a statement Thursday saying it was suspending contacts with the U.S. until "the Americans clarify their stance on the issues." U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta told reporters Thursday he was optimistic that the two governments will come to an agreement on the issue of night raids, a major obstacle in the proposed U.S.-Afghan strategic deal. President Karzai wants an end to such coalition operations, which he says cause civilian casualties. The two officials also discussed Sunday's alleged massacre of 16 Afghan civilians, including many children, by a U.S. soldier in Kandahar province. The U.S. staff sergeant, who has not yet been named or charged, was flown out of Afghanistan to Kuwait late Wednesday. U.S. Lieutenant General Curtis Scaparotti, the deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said the suspect was moved to ensure "both proper pre-trial confinement and access to legal services." A Pentagon spokesman ((Navy Captain John Kirby)) said the transfer did not necessarily mean the suspect's trial would not be held in Afghanistan, as many Afghans have demanded. In the southern city of Qalat, protesters chanted anti-American slogans Thursday, calling for justice and a public trial in Afghanistan for the accused U.S. soldier. Panetta arrived in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday. He said the recent violence in Afghanistan, including the attack by the U.S. soldier, would not deter the U.S. from its mission in the country. Panetta said that while the incident was "deeply troubling," it does not reflect negatively on the behavior of NATO forces as a whole.