The West's faltering operation to enforce security in Afghanistan and secure a peace plan suffered twin blows yesterday as the Taliban announced it was pulling out of preliminary talks with the US and President Hamid Karzai called on Nato to withdraw its troops from villages.
Days after a US soldier apparently walked off his base and killed 16 Afghan civilians, Mr Karzai insisted that his country's forces were able to provide security in the villages and that Nato forces should be confined to their bases.
"Our request is to speed up this process [of transition] and give control to the Afghans," the President said, according to a statement released by his office. "[Afghanistan is] ready to take over the entire security responsibility of the country by itself."
Afghanistan is still reeling from the incident last weekend when the still unidentified US soldier went on the rampage in villages close to his base in the south of the country, killing nine children and seven adults. He then burned some of their bodies. The suspect has been flown out of the country, reportedly to Kuwait, despite calls in Afghanistan – including from parliament – that he be tried in the country. "We do not have the proper facility in Afghanistan to detain him for longer than he is being held," Captain John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters.
Mr Karzai's demand that Nato troops return to their bases in rural areas followed a meeting with the US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, who made an unscheduled visit to Afghanistan after the incident, which happened in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province.
Nato said it was aware of the statement issued by President Karzai but made no further comment on his demand. Mr Karzai has also demanded that Western troops stop night operations, saying they result in too many civilian casualties.
Mr Panetta has said the US intends to hand over security responsibilities to Afghan forces as soon as possible. During his meeting with Mr Karzai, he assured the Afghan President that the US is carrying out a thorough investigation into Sunday's shooting and said the perpetrator will be punished.
Many questions remain about the abilities of the Afghan security forces and there is widespread perception among observers that once Western forces leave, large tracts of the country will return to Taliban hands.
And in an effort to ensure some control as it prepares to move most of its fighting troops from Afghanistan, the US has been holding preliminary talks with the Taliban in Qatar, where the militant group opened a "political office". After several meetings in 2011, the most recent informal conclave between the US and the Taliban is understood to have taken place in January.
But in a statement issued yesterday, the Taliban said it was breaking off the talks because the US had failed to follow through on its promises and had instead come up with new conditions for the talks.
"So the Islamic Emirate has decided to suspend all talks with Americans taking place in Qatar from today onwards until the Americans clarify their stance on the issues concerned and until they show willingness in carrying out their promises instead of wasting time," a Taliban spokesman said, according to the Associated Press.
He added: "We must categorically state that the real source of obstacle in talks was the shaky, erratic and vague standpoint of the Americans. Therefore all the responsibility for the halt also falls on their shoulders."
The developments are the latest in a series of incidents that have placed America's relationship with the Afghan leader under increasing strain. Last month, it emerged that US soldiers had accidentally burned copies of the Koran. The news triggered demonstrations across the country, and dozens of people were killed, among them several US troops.
Even this week, Mr Panetta saw for himself an example of the perils still facing the country. As his plane touched down at the British-operated Camp Bastion on Wednesday, an Afghan interpreter stole a pickup truck and apparently tried to use it to strike a group of Marines waiting for the Defence Secretary on the runway.