America-Afghanistan relations have sunk to a new low as Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered U.S. and NATO troops to withdraw from the countryside to their bases. The implications of the demand by Karzai are still being evaluated by coalition leaders already reeling from the riots triggered by last month’s inadvertent burning of Korans.

Tensions ramped up when the Taliban announced it would withdraw from peace talks with America because of Washington’s delay in transferring Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. While there is great debate over the discussions with the Taliban here in the U.S., the suspension of talks removes the only move towards a politically negotiated settlement to the Afghan conflict.

Hamid Karzai and Leon Panetta

Karzai Plays Politics

Karzai told Leon Panetta, U.S. Secretary of Defense, on a visit to Afghanistan, that foreign troops “have to be taken out of Afghan village outposts and return to (larger) bases.”

“Afghan security forces have the ability to keep the security in rural areas and in villages on their own.” Karzai said the move would help prevent a repeat of Sunday’s attack in Kandahar where an American staff sergeant broke into houses and methodically shot the occupants.

Apparently Karzai isn’t willing to wait for a U.S. investigation into the shooting before taking action. Reports have leaked that the soldier in question may have been drinking before the incident but results of the ongoing investigation remain in question.

Without NATO forces in the countryside training local defense forces to police their villages Taliban resurgence is almost assured. Training of Afghan forces has had a significant effect on local control of insurgents and is likely the reason the Taliban entered into talks with the Afghanistan government and coalition officials.

As much as 40 percent of NATO forces are stationed in small rural bases where they work alongside Afghan forces. If military trainers are required to withdraw to major bases virtually all training activities will cease and much of the progress made over the past 2 years will slowly fade away.

The Taliban announced it would terminate political overtures in the Gulf state of Qatar, where it was planning to open an office to further negotiations. It’s apparent that the Taliban believes recent tensions in Afghanistan have strengthened their influence in the country. The distance between Karzai and the U.S. gives the Taliban optimism that the weak Afghan government may collapse offering them an opportunity to fill the void.

Recent tensions have increased calls on both sides of the equation in the U.S. to change America’s posture in Afghanistan. Many who have pushed for an increase in U.S. forces as well as stronger action are now suggesting a full pull-out of NATO forces. However, there are just as many who don’t feel that Karzai is strong enough to accomplish coalition goals and want to push for a widespread offensive this spring and summer.

Should recent developments lead to an earlier pull-out from Afghanistan or more U.S. fatalities, a minor matter in the fall election could become a polarizing issue for the president.

Karzai Weakness Entices Taliban

The Taliban issued a statement blaming America’s “alternating and ever changing position” for the collapse; however it’s quite likely that the Taliban is taking advantage of the split between Karzai and Washington.

The demands by the Taliban for release of senior Taliban officials held at Guantanamo Bay have ramped up coincidental with recent tragedies in Afghanistan, partly due to Karzai’s harsh statements and a perceived weakness in NATO’s position in-country. American officials have emphasized that no decision has yet been made over the request to transfer the detainees, either to house arrest or to a more relaxed Qatari penal system.

The transfer of the senior figures, including Khairullah Khairkhwa, former governor of Herat, and Mullah Mohammad Fazl, former head of the Taliban army, will face stiff opposition in the U.S. The delays are believed an Obama Administration tactic to keep the matter off the political radar until after the election.

The Taliban statement also rejected any possibility of direct talks with the Karzai government, which they claim is no more than a puppet regime of the Americans. Karzai’s recent negative tone is Karzai’s attempt to separate himself the U.S. led coalition. How far Karzai will go with his political maneuvering remains to be seen.

Michael Semple, former deputy European Union representative in Kabul and a leading expert on the Taliban, said the collapse of talks will strengthen the hand of Taliban hardliners and result in more fighting and further weakening of the Karzai government.

With the recent spike in gasoline prices, a still anemic economy, stubborn unemployment and a predicted Israeli attack against Iran on the horizon, the last thing the Obama Administration needed was a falling out with Karzai and rising violence in Afghanistan.