With U.S.-Afghanistan relations in crisis, Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Friday openly doubted the American account of the March 12 massacre of 16 Afghan civilians, allegedly by one U.S. soldier. And Karzai told President Barack Obama by telephone that it was time to pull NATO forces from Afghan villages, the Associated Press reported.
"Yesterday, I said clearly that the Americans should leave our villages," Karzai said. "This morning, Obama called regarding this issue. He asked, 'Did you announce this'? I said, 'Yes, I announced it.'"
Obama has said it appears that the massacre, in which nine children and three women were among the 16 killed, was the work of "a lone gunman."
But the AP reported that Karzai, after meeting with relatives of some of the victims, pointed to one of the villagers and said: "In his family, in four rooms people were killed—children and women were killed—and then they were all brought together in one room and then set on fire. That, one man cannot do."
The White House confirmed that Obama had telephoned Karzai from Washington but described the exchange in a very different tone.
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, told reporters aboard Air Force One that the two leaders were "very much on the same page" with regard to the overall strategy for easing international forces into a supporting role in 2013, followed by a full handover of responsibility to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.
"The two leaders did discuss President Karzai's concern about the U.S. forces in Afghan villages within the context" of the broader strategy, he said.
And "the two men very much share the goal of Afghanistan being able to be responsible for its own security, for Afghan forces to be able to do that, have the capacity to do that," Carney said.
Amid concerns that U.S.-Afghan relations have reached a breaking point, Carney said the trigger for the call was Obama's desire "to offer his best wishes and congratulations to President Karzai and his wife on the birth of their daughter" and that the two leaders then "took the opportunity" to discuss the war effort.
Carney said the two leaders had discussed Karzai's recent call for curtailing night raids and house searches—tactics American commanders say are crucial to hunting down insurgents—as well as the Afghan leader's "concerns" about the presence of international forces in Afghan villages.
Asked whether the two leaders had discussed the transfer to American soil of the Army sergeant who allegedly carried out the shooting rampage, Carney said, "I'm not aware that that was a subject of the conversation."
Karzai will get a chance soon to express his views to Obama in person. He is expected to attend the NATO summit in Chicago in late May.
"The president and President Karzai agreed to stay in close touch," Carney said.
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