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NATO's Afghan strategy tested as Taliban talks derail, Karzai demands troop pullback

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Omar Sobhani/Reuters

(Read caption) Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai speaks during a meeting with the family members of civilians killed by a US soldier in Kandahar last week at the presidential palace in Kabul, Mar. 16.

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NATO’s strategy for Afghanistan was upended yesterday by the derailment of talks with the Taliban and the almost simultaneous demand from Afghan President Hamid Karzai that coalition troops leave village outposts and concentrate their presence on major military bases. 

A senior Western diplomat told The Guardian, “I’m really shocked, these are two pieces of very bad news … It’s probably the bleakest day of my time here in Afghanistan.”

The two developments come after a couple of very difficult weeks for the coalition: First, there was severe fallout from the accidental burning of several Qurans on NATO airbase; and this week, there were several protests following the shooting of 16 Afghan civilians by a US soldier.

If NATO agrees to Mr. Karzai’s demand, “it would spell the end for the current coalition military approach, which aims to push out insurgents and win over the civilian population village by village,” the Guardian reports. But the Obama administration “rebuffed” Karzai’s demands, and White House spokesman Jay Carney said there were no plans to change the current strategy.

The Los Angeles Times painted the demands as political posturing that would not be acted on, although they are a worrying indicator about Afghan attitudes toward NATO.

In practical terms, both developments might prove largely symbolic. Karzai does not have the power to enforce specific demands as to where Western troops are deployed, and U.S. contacts with the Taliban were in the very early stages.

However, taken together, the moves point to a rapidly souring mood on the part of two major players in the conflict and to a growing sense of disarray in the American-led coalition's plans to find a way out of this decade-old war.

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