ABU DHABI (Reuters) - The United States played down a call by Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Thursday for a NATO pullout from Afghan villages, saying no change in the troop withdrawal timetable was in the works and no immediate pullout was being sought by Kabul.
Karzai, in a statement after meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Kabul, said “international security forces have to be taken out of Afghan village outposts and return to (larger) bases.”
Karzai made the call after a U.S. soldier killed 16 civilians, most of them women in and children, in a village in the south of the country on Sunday.
Withdrawing troops from villages could undercut U.S. President Barack Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan by hampering efforts to mentor Afghan police and help with local governance.
But a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to reporters traveling with Panetta, said the United States did not believe Karzai wanted the pullout to occur now.
“There is a schedule for security transition and right now there’s no reason to expect that that schedule should change and President Karzai did not ask for any change in the current schedule (at the meeting),” the official said in Abu Dhabi, the latest stop on Panetta’s trip.
Tensions are high in Afghanistan after Sunday’s killings and the burning of copies of the Koran at the main NATO base last month. More than 30 people died in riots following the Koran burning.
Karzai’s statement on NATO troops may have been aimed primarily at his own domestic political opinion, as U.S. officials suspect similar past demands have been. The Afghan leader has not always followed through on previous demands for changes in the way NATO forces operate.
There have also been a spate of attacks on NATO troops by Afghans working with them, including an attempt by an Afghan translator to run over Marines who were assembled at an air base to greet Panetta as his plane landed on Wednesday.
The man, who emerged from the vehicle in flames, died of his wounds on Thursday.
Panetta shrugged off the security scare and stressed throughout his trip to Afghanistan that recent incidents should not throw the decade-old war off-course.
“That’s the nature of war. And these incidents are going to take place,” Panetta told reporters. “But none of this, none of this, should undermine our ability to stay focused on the mission.”
Panetta was extremely upbeat about his meeting with Karzai at a news conference earlier in the day. And U.S. officials, while acknowledging some disagreements with Kabul, said the United States and Afghanistan were aligned on strategy.
The U.S. defense official, who accompanied Panetta on Thursday, called it “one of the most agreeable and productive meetings that I have ever witnessed with President Karzai.”
Karzai had said in the talks that Afghans, not NATO forces, needed to be in charge in the villages, something Panetta agreed to as a goal of the current transition plan, the official said.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said he did not believe there was “a great deal of daylight” between the United States and Afghanistan.
“We believe that this statement reflects President Karzai’s strong interest in moving as quickly as possible to a fully independent and sovereign Afghanistan,” said Little, who was also briefing reporters traveling with Panetta in Abu Dhabi.
At the State Department, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that in general terms, both sides were “talking about the same thing, which is the Afghans increasingly taking the lead for their own security.”
Additional reporting by Rob Taylor and Jack Kimball in Kabul and Andrew Quinn in Washington; Editing by Vicki Allen and David Brunnstrom