KABUL, Afghanistan — Warning he’s at the “end of the rope” over civilian casualties, Afghanistan’s president angrily accused the U.S. of not sharing information about how an American soldier allegedly shot and killed 16 Afghans in two villages.
The incident has reverberated through the already complicated relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan, endangering talks over a long-term relationship after most U.S. and NATO combat troops withdraw by the end of 2014.
A senior U.S. official on Friday said the soldier accused in the killings is Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation. American officials had previously refused to release his name, saying it is military policy to publicly name a suspect only after he has been charged with an offense.
Bales has not yet been charged. He was being flown Friday from Kuwait to a military detention center in the U.S.
In an emotional meeting with relatives of the shooting victims, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the villagers’ accounts of the massacre were widely different from the scenario depicted by U.S. military officials. The relatives and villagers insisted that it was impossible for one gunmen to kill nine children, four men and three women in three houses of two villages near a U.S. combat outpost in southern Afghanistan.
Karzai pointed to one of the villagers from Panjwai district of Kandahar province 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.”
Karzai said the delegation he sent to Kandahar province to investigate the shootings did not receive the expected cooperation from the United States. He said many questions remained about what occurred, and he would be raising the questions with the U.S. military “very loudly.”
The U.S. military had no comment on Karzai’s remarks.
The Afghan leader stressed that he wants a good relationship with the international community, but that it was becoming increasingly difficult in light of airstrikes that miss their targets, leaving civilians dead and raising opposition to night operations where troops raid homes looking for insurgents.
“This has been going on for too long,” he said at the presidential palace. “You have heard me before. It is by all means the end of the rope here. … This form of activity, this behavior cannot be tolerated. It is past, past, past the time.”
NATO has said that night operations have been instrumental in rounding up midlevel commanders and Taliban bomb makers. The coalition says more than 90 percent of night operations are done alongside Afghan forces and that more than 85 percent are conducted without any shots fired.
The United Nations has reported that last year was the deadliest on record for civilians in the Afghan war, with 3,021 killed as insurgents ratcheted up violence with suicide attacks and roadside bombs.
The U.N. attributed 77 percent of the deaths to insurgent attacks and 14 percent to actions by international and Afghan troops. Nine percent of cases were classified as having an unknown cause.
On Thursday, Karzai demanded that international forces pull out of rural areas because the fight was not in the villages.
Afghan officials said Karzai made his request to immediately pull back from the villages during a meeting on Thursday with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
U.S. officials said, however, that he did not tell Panetta that it should happen immediately.
Karzai said his demand for a withdrawal from villages was a topic of a phone call he received Friday morning from President Barack Obama.
“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.”’
Karzai’s office and the White House issued statements recounting the phone call.
Both said the two leaders discussed Karzai’s longstanding concerns about night raids and house searches and they agreed to finish negotiations on a memorandum of understanding to resolve the issues. They agreed to further discuss Karzai’s concern about the presence of foreign troops in Afghan villages, both statements said.
On an unrelated matter, Obama congratulated Karzai and his wife on the birth of their daughter. Karzai also has a 5-year-old son, Mirwais.
Bales, the shooting suspect, was being taken to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the military’s only maximum-security prison.
Officials say that transfer was necessary because there was no appropriate detention facility to hold him in Afghanistan.
The passage through Kuwait angered conservatives in the Gulf Arab nation, where the U.S. military has thousands of troops stationed. Kuwait has become an increasingly important strategic location for U.S. forces in the region after the American withdrawal from Iraq.
Islamist lawmaker Waleed Tabtabaei was quoted by the Kuwait newspaper Al-Rai saying the stopover was unacceptable and the U.S. should “stop treating Kuwait like its backyard.” In an apparent nod to such sentiments, the Kuwait military statement underlined that the suspect was not questioned while on Kuwaiti soil.
Dealing another blow to the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, the Taliban on Thursday said they were calling off talks with the Americans, charging that the U.S. had failed to follow through on its promises and had made new demands. The militant group also said the U.S. falsely claimed that it had entered into multilateral negotiations that included the Afghan government.
Karzai said Friday that the Taliban should be talking directly with his government.
The moves represent new setbacks to America’s strategy for ending the 10-year-old war at a time when support at home for the conflict is plummeting.
Part of the U.S. exit strategy is to transfer authority gradually to Afghan forces. Another tack is to pull the Taliban and other militant factions into political discussions with the Afghan government, though it’s unclear whether there has been any progress since January.
Prospective peace talks have not gained traction, according to longtime Afghan warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former Afghan prime minister who has been branded a terrorist by Washington. U.S. and Afghan officials have had talks with representatives of Hekmatyar.
“As far as I know, there haven’t been any hopeful negotiations between the United States and their opposition, or the Afghan government with the mujahedeen or the Taliban,” Hekmatyar told 1TV, a private Afghan television station, in an interview broadcast on Thursday.
U.S. discussions with Hekmatyar have been described as nascent and exploratory. Still, in addition to getting the blessing of Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar — a bitter rival of Hekmatyar even though both are fighting international troops — any peace deal would likely have to be supported by Hekmatyar, who has thousands of fighters and followers primarily in the north and east.
Associated Press writers Heidi Vogt and Sebastian Abbot contributed to this report in Kabul. Robert Burns in Washington and Lolita C. Baldor also contributed.