Panetta, Karzai Meet After Villagers Are Massacred

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is in Afghanistan on a long-planned trip that has turned into something of a fence-mending mission. A U.S. soldier is accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians. That attack is the latest in a series of negative events involving U.S. forces.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is in Afghanistan, a long-planned trip that has turned into something of a fence-mending mission. Yesterday, he met with U.S. Marines and Afghan troops in the southern province of Helmand. It was in a neighboring province that 16 Afghans - mostly women and children - were massacred, apparently at the hands of an American Army sergeant.

That attack is the latest in a series of negative events involving U.S. forces - including the accidental burning of Qurans, which sparked deadly riots - all of which were on the minds of the Defense secretary and Afghanistan's president when they met today.

NPR's Quil Lawrence joins us from Kabul to talk more about this. Quil, we can assume that the meeting today between Secretary Panetta and President Hamid Karzai was, at least, a delicate conversation. What do you know about what they talked about?

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Well, what's been made public so far is very much that they agreed to stay the course, in terms of having American troops drawing down at the same rate that previously - they previously agreed; that they'll be down to 68,000 American troops here in the country, by September. And then they really haven't specified how quickly they'll be drawing the rest of those troops down before 2014.

It's said that some people in the White House would like to see an accelerated drawdown of troops; that the military leadership is more interested in having a stronger fighting force here later into the 2013 fighting season.

Now, after the meeting, President Karzai announced that he would like to see a faster transition. That's not a faster drawdown, by a faster transition to Afghan control. They have been turning over districts and provinces in the country to Afghan lead, they say. He'd like to see that sped up. It doesn't really make that much of a difference for American soldiers. They're still going to be in a supporting role. They're still going to be called out if there's trouble.

MONTAGNE: And what is the latest on the U.S. soldier accused of carrying out that massacre down in Kandahar?

LAWRENCE: What we do know is that he was flown to Kuwait today - he has left Afghanistan - he's at a detention facility there. This is over the objections of many Afghan members of Parliament. They had demanded that the perpetrator - the alleged perpetrator of this massacre be tried in Afghanistan. But that isn't going to happen. It was never really going to happen, under rules of U.S. military jurisdiction.

MONTAGNE: Quil, there was also a statement this morning from the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban announced a suspension of talks with the U.S. in the Gulf state of Qatar. Is this also a reaction to the massacre last weekend?

LAWRENCE: It wasn't mentioned in the statement from the Taliban, although it's possible that this massacre might have emboldened factions within the Taliban that have been against the peace process in Qatar all along. What they did mention was broken promises by the Americans. Now, this may be in reference to a - sort of a catch-22 for the U.S. in this process. At first, they made this arrangement for negotiations in Qatar without consulting Kabul. And they really caught it from the Karzai government for not having sufficiently kept President Karzai in the loop.

But then once they started emphasizing that President Karzai was in the lead, that this was an Afghan-led process, well, the Taliban, in their statements today, said that that was unacceptable. They consider Karzai to be completely irrelevant - not a player, and simply a puppet of the U.S. And this might have been one of the stumbling blocks. They also mentioned - one of the broken promises they might have been referring to was a suggestion that there might be a confidence-building measure, whereby Taliban prisoners would be released from Guantanamo into a sort of house arrest in Qatar.

And one analyst said that the Taliban really needed something to give their troops before the fighting season starts again this summer. Either they had to have some major concessions and a peace process, or they needed to rally their soldiers back to war. And the same analyst told me that they're afraid that a window might have closed on this; that an opportunity for peace negotiations might have been lost.

MONTAGNE: Quil, thanks very much. NPR's Quil Lawrence, speaking from Kabul on the visit by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to Afghanistan.

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