Karzai Calls For Troops To Leave Afghan Villages

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met Afghan President Hamid Karzai Thursday in Afghanistan. The meeting came at a moment of high tension following the killings of 16 Afghan civilians. An American soldier is in custody and the incident has raised new questions about the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Today, Afghan President Hamid Karzai called on international forces to withdraw from Afghan villages. That demand was not part of the script on a day when Karzai met with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The goal of their meeting was to smooth things over after last weekend's shooting of Afghan villagers, allegedly by a U.S. soldier. NPR's Larry Abramson is traveling with Secretary Panetta. He has this report.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: This visit was planned long before 16 Afghans died in that shooting on Sunday. Panetta tried to keep that incident and the recent accidental burning of Korans by U.S. personnel from dominating his trip, but Panetta could not escape the pall created by these and other missteps. When he spoke to troops in Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province, Panetta urged them to fight on.

LEON PANETTA: Each of these incidents is deeply troubled and we have to learn the lessons from each of those incidents.

ABRAMSON: Just before Panetta spoke, an Afghan translator stole a truck and drove onto the runway ramp where Panetta's plane landed. He set himself on fire and died from his injuries. The Pentagon says there's no indication this was an attempt on the secretary's life, but the story detracted from the message of steady progress toward ending the U.S. combat role by the end of 2014. Today, Panetta met with President Karzai. Afterwards, he said the two were in total agreement on that goal.

PANETTA: On this trip, everyone I talked to absolutely agreed with the strategy.

ABRAMSON: As soon as Panetta boarded his plane, that unity appeared to dissolve. Karzai released a statement saying that international troops should stay out of Afghan villages and stay on their bases. And he appeared to support an accelerated timetable for handing over control to Afghan forces. In that statement, Karzai cited the Kandahar shootings, calling them brutality on the Afghan people.

But the Pentagon says Karzai did not do an about-face on the U.S. Secretary Panetta did not address the comments directly, but Pentagon Press Secretary George Little did.

GEORGE LITTLE: We don't believe that there is, you know, a great deal of daylight between the United States and Afghanistan. The president's plan is consistent with President Karzai's comments today. We look forward to continuing to consult President Karzai about the international community's commitment to Afghanistan.

ABRAMSON: Little insists that the U.S. and Afghanistan share the same goal, putting Afghan security forces in charge as soon as possible. Any call to speed up, the Pentagon said, would depend on conditions on the ground. Those conditions are improving. The Pentagon said Taliban attacks are way down this year, but the country is still very dangerous. One avenue toward peace was temporarily closed today when the Taliban dropped out of U.S.-backed peace talks, saying one reason is that they will not work with Karzai's government.

And there are many more opportunities for head-butting. The U.S. and Afghanistan still have to work on sensitive issues, such as the controversial night raids used to go after insurgents. Before Karzai's statement, Panetta emphasized this tactic is essential.

PANETTA: Make no mistake about it, it is important that we continue these operations. They've been extremely important to our ability to go after the terrorist leadership that tried to destabilize this country.

ABRAMSON: The Pentagon says Panetta is confident these issues can be resolved before a key NATO meeting in May. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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