US holds out hope for Afghan reconciliation talks

WASHINGTON (AP) ? The Obama administration said it would press on with trying to reconcile Afghanistan’s government and Taliban forces willing to renounce terrorism, despite Thursday’s announcement by the militant group that it was no longer interested in peace talks with the United States.

It also insisted that the U.S. course in Afghanistan was unchanged, as 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 16 people, including nine children, and by the inadvertent burning of Qurans by US troops. The 16 people were allegedly killed by an American soldier

“There is no likely resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan without a political resolution,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters. “And 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.”

In Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met with Karzai and sought to repair the strained U.S.-Afghan relationship. In the aftermath of the killing, Afghanistan’s leader wants NATO to curtail operations in the countryside and accelerate the planned transfer of security responsibilities. But after that meeting, US defense officials said Karzai never brought up the issue of leaving rural areas and the officials said it was unclear whether US troops could even evacuate those areas before the scheduled time anyway.

The meeting came a day after President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron reiterated that the aim for 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. Obama cautioned that no one should see “any sudden, additional changes” in the pace of withdrawal.

Lawmakers in Afghanistan, meanwhile, were expressing outrage that the U.S. flew the soldier suspected of gunning down 16 civilians early Sunday in two Afghan villages to Kuwait on Wednesday night. They demand that the suspect, a U.S. Army staff sergeant, be tried in Afghanistan.

Even before the latest troubles, efforts to negotiate an Afghan settlement to more than a decade of war have been stymied by the Taliban’s unwillingness to negotiate directly with President Hamid Karzai’s government. The Taliban said Thursday it would no longer speak with Washington, accusing the U.S. of failing to deliver on promises and making new demands in the talks.

Carney rejected the claims, and State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland insisted that Washington at no point agreed to transfer Taliban detainees from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba ? as the Taliban claimed. Any such decision would first have to be presented to Congress, she said.

“We’re not at that stage,” Nuland told reporters.

Karzai also did not request a change in the troop withdrawal schedule, said a U.S. official, who disclosed details of the private meeting on condition of anonymity.

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.”


Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.