By ANNE GEARAN
WASHINGTON - The Obama administration sought to put the best face on an Afghanistan policy called into question Thursday by the apparent shelving of talks with insurgents and announcement from the U.S.-backed government in Kabul that it will not support the fielding of U.S. forces deep into rural villages, a key goal of the current military strategy.
The announcements from Afghanistan strike at both elements of the twin-track U.S. exit strategy, which calls for a gradual transfer of security authority to Afghan forces and U.S. talks with Taliban insurgents as a seed for larger political reconciliation talks with the Afghan government.
U.S. spokesmen said the administration will press on with trying to reconcile Afghanistan's government and Taliban forces willing to renounce terrorism, despite Thursday's announcement by the militants that they were suspending contacts with the United States. The last substantive talks between U.S. officials and Taliban representatives was in January, and two initiatives to build trust and move toward real peace talks are in limbo.
The Taliban accused the U.S. of failing to deliver on promises and making new demands in the talks, a charge that White House press secretary Jay Carney denied.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai demanded Thursday that U.S. troops leave rural Afghan areas and stay on bases until they finish the withdrawal of troops by the end of 2014. The war effort has been set back in recent days by the weekend slaughter of nine children among 16 people killed allegedly by an American soldier, and earlier by the inadvertent burning of Qurans by U.S. troops.
The Obama administration has endorsed negotiation with the insurgents as the best hope for reaching a political settlement in Afghanistan, and entered secret direct talks with Taliban representatives last year. The talks have foundered before, and several people familiar with the contacts characterized the latest news as a temporary but expected setback. They spoke on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive diplomacy.
"There is no likely resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan without a political resolution," Carney said. "Our conditions for participation in that process by the Taliban have been clear in terms of the reconciliation. Those who would be reconciled need to lay down their arms, renounce al-Qaida (and) promise to abide by the Afghan constitution. And we continue to support that process."
A senior U.S. official familiar with the discussions said U.S. officials expected some statement from the Taliban backing away from talks, and presume that the timing following Sunday's killings is an attempt to gain greater leverage over the United States.
Even before the latest troubles, efforts to negotiate an Afghan settlement were stymied by the Taliban's unwillingness to negotiate directly with Karzai's government, which the militants see as illegitimate. Karzai has complained that he was cut out of the talks, complicating his sometimes rocky relationship with Washington.
The Taliban have maintained they want to negotiate only with the United States, the largest donor and largest military force in Afghanistan. The Associated Press previously reported that the U.S. side had agreed to greater Afghan government participation in future talks. That shift appears to underlie the Taliban claim of a change in terms, although their statement was not specific.
As to whether the U.S. has delivered on promises in earlier negotiations, the Taliban were apparently referring to a plan the U.S. has backed publicly to open a Taliban political office in the Gulf state of Qatar, as the Taliban had requested. That plan, although reluctantly endorsed by Karzai, apparently has been delayed by an internal Taliban debate about a public renunciation of international terrorism. The U.S. has made that renunciation a condition for opening the office.
The Taliban also seek release of five prisoners held at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The AP previously has reported that the U.S. agreed in principle to transfer the prisoners to custody in Qatar, and U.S. officials have publicly acknowledged the idea is in play.
Several Republicans in Congress have denounced the transfer plan, and there has been no apparent progress on it.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States has made no decisions to transfer Taliban detainees. She urged continued negotiations with the insurgents.
"We still feel that if there is a process that can be supported, that we ought to do that," Nuland told reporters. "We remain prepared to continue these discussions," with a goal of getting the Taliban and the Afghan government to negotiate directly.
In Afghanistan this week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met with Karzai and sought to repair the strained U.S.-Afghan relationship. In the aftermath of the killing, Karzai wants NATO to curtail operations in the countryside and accelerate the planned transfer of security responsibilities to Afghan forces.
Although Karzai previously has said he wanted international troops to transition out of rural areas, the apparent call for an immediate exit is new. Karzai also said he wants Afghan forces to take the lead for countrywide security in 2013, which may or may not be in line with a statement Wednesday from President Barack Obama and British Prime Minster David Cameron. They reiterated that the aim of the U.S. and its allies was to get out by the end of 2014, but stated for the first time that international forces would hand over the lead combat role to Afghan forces next year.
A statement released by Karzai's office said he told Panetta he wants to see "international forces come out of Afghan villages and stay in their bases."
There was confusion among U.S. military officials and diplomats about just what Karzai was asking, and how far apart he is from current U.S. policy. U.S. officials tried to minimize the differences.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said the issue of leaving villages did come up, and that the U.S. viewed it as a reflection of Karzai's "strong interest in moving toward a fully independent and sovereign Afghanistan as soon as possible."
"We share President Karzai's interest," Little said. "We believe it needs to be done in a responsible manner."
The soldier accused of the shootings was part of far-flung "village stability" operations favored by former war commander Gen. David Petraeus and seen as a central element of the counterinsurgency strategy to build trust and skills among local Afghan forces and neighborhood militias. Although the U.S. has walked away from basic pillars of the counterinsurgency strategy, the policy to keep soldiers working and living alongside rural populations has continued.
It was never popular with Karzai, who has said the insurgent problem in his country springs from support across the border in Pakistan, not from unrest in villages. Critics of the U.S. and NATO military plan long have said that a large military footprint, especially in conservative rural districts, encourages violence and bolsters the Taliban argument that they are fighting a foreign occupier.
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and Donna Cassata and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.