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Backlash clouds US Afghan withdrawal

Washington, Feb. 27: American officials have sought to reassure both Afghanistan’s government and a domestic audience that the US remained committed to the war after the weekend killing of two American military officers inside the Afghan interior ministry and days of deadly anti-American protests.

But behind the public pronouncements, American officials described a growing concern, even at the highest levels of the Obama administration and Pentagon, about the challenges of pulling off a troop withdrawal in Afghanistan that hinges on the close mentoring and training of army and police forces.

Despite an American-led training effort that has spanned years and cost tens of billions of dollars, the Afghan security forces are still widely seen as riddled with dangerously unreliable soldiers and police officers.

The distrust has only deepened as a pattern of attacks by Afghan security forces on American and Nato service members, beginning years ago, has drastically worsened over the past few days. A grenade attack on Sunday, apparently by a protester, wounded at least six American soldiers.

Nearly a week of violent unrest after American personnel threw Qurans into a pit of burning trash has brought into sharp relief the growing American and Afghan frustration and, at times, open hostility and the risks of a strategy that calls for American soldiers and civilians to work closely with Afghans.

The US now has what one senior American official said was “almost no margin of error” in trying to achieve even limited goals in Afghanistan after a series of crises that have stirred resentment.

The official said the unrest might complicate but was unlikely to significantly alter the overall plan: to keep pulling out troops and focus instead on using Special Operations forces to train the Afghans and go after insurgent and militant leaders in targeted raids while diplomats try opening talks with the Taliban.

At the same time, the administration plans to continue negotiations on a long-term framework to guide relations with Afghanistan after the Nato mission through the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) ends in 2014.

Officials from the White House, the state department, the Pentagon and other agencies are to begin meeting this week to hammer out details of the various efforts, and to work out the size of the next round of withdrawals, which Obama is expected to announce at a Nato summit meeting planned for May in Chicago.

Those immediate talks, officials say, could be most affected. What only weeks ago was an undercurrent of anti-Americanism in Afghanistan is now a palpable fury, and if the situation continues to deteriorate at its current pace, plans could be altered, the official said. “There’s a certain impatience I mean, there are people who don’t see how we succeed under the current conditions, and their case is getting stronger.”

Hundreds of American military and civilian advisers have already been pulled out of the Afghan ministries and government departments in Kabul, the capital.

While that move has been described as temporary, the official declined to speculate about what kind of long-term changes could be envisioned. The official and others interviewed for this article spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the crisis with Afghanistan.

Another administration official said the unrest was “going to have a really negative effect” on all the initiatives but added that much remained unclear and that the focus was on damage control.

Regardless of the challenges, and possible setbacks to vital negotiations, American officials said the mission had to go on. “This is not the time to decide that we’re done here,” the US ambassador in Kabul, Ryan C. Crocker, told CNN. “We have got to redouble our efforts. We’ve got to create a situation in which al Qaida is not coming back.”

 
 
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