Administration officials had steeled themselves for fallout after the burning of Korans by U.S. service members last month and the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians Sunday, allegedly by an Army staff sergeant who went on a rampage.
But Thursday’s statements caught Western officials in Kabul off guard and sparked new concerns that the U.S.-led operation here could unravel as trust erodes between Afghans and their foreign benefactors.
“Afghanistan is ready right now to take all security responsibilities completely,” Karzai said in a statement issued shortly after he met with visiting Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta. “To speed up this process, authority should be given to Afghans.”
The statement set no deadline for what it called the “withdrawal of international forces from villages.” It reiterated Karzai’s insistence that foreign troops should not be allowed to conduct night raids on Afghan homes. U.S. commanders rely heavily on these operations to net suspected insurgents.
Karzai has a long history of making demands that the international community ignores or implements slowly, and he has cried wolf many times. But if he presses ahead with the demand for withdrawal of NATO forces from the countryside, the U.S. military could face many of the same challenges it contended with in Iraq in 2009, as Baghdad sought to curb the movement and authority of American troops.
The effect in Afghanistan could be considerably more complex and dangerous. Iraq’s insurgency had begun to wane at the time, but militants in Afghanistan remain strong, despite coalition progress in some areas, and Taliban leaders continue to have sanctuary in neighboring Pakistan.
Coalition commanders see the constellation of small outposts in insurgent-plagued provinces as essential to their goal of providing enough security for the Afghan government to take root. That objective remains elusive in much of the country, and the Afghan government, whose military forces are still a work in progress, still depends almost entirely on foreign funding.
In a news conference in Washington with visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday, Obama acknowledged “multiple challenges along the way” but said that “in terms of pace, I don’t anticipate at this stage that we’re going to be making any sudden additional changes to the plan that we currently have.”
“If we maintain a steady, responsible transition process, which is what we’ve designed, then I am confident that we can put Afghans in a position where they can deal with their own security,” he said.