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Originally published Friday, March 16, 2012 at 8:06 AM

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War effort hits new low; Karzai at 'end of rope'

Afghan President Hamid Karzai says he's at "the end of the rope," and a majority of Americans feel the same way.

AP National Security Writer

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WASHINGTON —

Afghan President Hamid Karzai says he's at "the end of the rope," and a majority of Americans feel the same way.

Of all the past decade's setbacks in the endeavor to form a solid alliance with Afghanistan and defeat the Taliban, the war effort has been driven to a new low by the slaughter of nine Afghan children and seven adults allegedly by a U.S. soldier whose identity had been kept secret until late Friday.

He is Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 38, of Lake Tapps, Wash., his attorney confirmed.

The soldier was flown Friday from a U.S. military detention facility in Kuwait to the maximum security prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., though Karzai demanded anew that he be tried under the Afghan justice system.

Karzai also is now insisting that U.S. forces retreat from rural areas immediately and let Afghans take the lead in security next year. But the White House and the Pentagon said Friday that nothing would collapse the war plan, even after the massacre, the inadvertent Quran burnings by U.S. soldiers and the deaths of seven American servicemen at the hands of their allies.

Polls have shown that up to 60 percent of Americans say it's time to end the war in Afghanistan. And that's not lost on the administration.

"The Afghan people are tired of war," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, just back from Afghanistan, acknowledged on Friday. "The American people share some of that tiredness after 10 years of war, as well. All of that's understandable."

But he also said he is confident that Americans realize the U.S. needs to finish its work of stabilizing Afghanistan to ensure that al-Qaida cannot against use that country as a launch pad to attack the United States. His theme - patience - is likely to dominate the discourse in Washington and in allied capitals in the lead-up to a NATO summit meeting in Chicago in May.

President Barack Obama called Karzai on Friday seeking clarification on the demand concerning U.S. troops in rural areas, and White House press secretary Jay Carney said the leaders agreed to keep discussing the matter, which is at the heart of the military strategy.

"I think that the two men were very much on the same page" about gradually handing over security responsibility to Afghan forces, with U.S. and other international troops switching to a support role throughout Afghanistan sometime in 2013, Carney said. A final transition to Afghan control is supposed to happen by the end of 2014.

Another pillar of the war strategy is creating meaningful peace talks with the Taliban insurgents, but that, too, suffered cracks in the aftermath of the village massacre. The Taliban said it was no longer talking on terms set by the Americans.

A senior U.S. official familiar with the discussions said American officials presume that the timing of the Taliban announcement following Sunday's killings was an attempt to gain greater leverage. Officials have long calculated that the Taliban would not engage seriously in peace talks unless it had lost more ground militarily.

Despite calls for the Army suspect to be tried in Afghanistan, Bales was flown Wednesday to a military detention facility in Kuwait, where that country's officials expressed unhappiness that they were not first consulted.

It remained unclear when the Army would formally charge the soldier, who was said by his lawyer to be reluctantly serving his fourth tour of duty, his first in Afghanistan after three tours in Iraq in his 11-year military career. Much of what is publicly known about the staff sergeant has been disclosed by the lawyer, John Henry Browne, a veteran defense attorney from Seattle who came forward Thursday.

According to statistics provided by the Army on Friday, 107,075 soldiers, or about 20 percent of all active-duty Army members, have had three or more deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan over the past decade.

Browne said that one day before the rampage, the soldier saw a comrade's leg blown off. A senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss possible evidence in the case, said investigators have determined that the suspect had been drinking alcohol before the killings. The official said the role of alcohol in the case is still being studied. Browne has said the suspect's wife reported her husband did not have a drinking problem.

Karzai has often been critical of the American effort, and on Friday he toughened his talk even more in addressing a group of villagers visiting Kabul from the Panjwai district in Kandahar province where the slaughter of the 16 civilians took place.

"The fight is not in the villages, not in the houses of Afghanistan," he said, repeating a familiar theme. "It is not safe for you (U.S. troops) in the villages and it is creating a bad name for you." He added: "Continuously, I have told the Americans to leave our villages. You are not needed in our villages. There is no terrorism ... so what are you doing in the villages?"

Karzai has often said the insurgent problem in his country springs from support across the border in Pakistan, not from unrest in villages. Critics of the U.S. and NATO military plan also have said that a large military presence, especially in conservative rural districts, encourages violence and bolsters the Taliban argument that it is fighting a foreign occupier.

But a central tenet of the war strategy is that the presence of U.S. and international troops in certain towns and villages is necessary to separate the population from the insurgents, creating space for local, provincial and national government to take firmer root.

The apparently unprovoked killing spree Sunday in two villages in southern Afghanistan, allegedly by a 38-year-old Army staff sergeant trained as a sniper, is only the latest in a string of missteps by American forces. Their mistaken burning of Muslim holy books at an air base in Bagram last month triggered a wave of violent protests across the country and an apology by Obama.

"As tragic as incidents like these are - and there have been a string of tragic incidents in recent weeks - it would be just as tragic, if not more, if we let it affect the overall mission, which is having success," said a Pentagon spokesman, Navy Capt. John Kirby. "And it's just as wrong to extrapolate from those incidents some sort of overarching belief or notion that it (the U.S.-Afghan partnership) is failing."

The cascading events stole attention from what Kirby and other U.S. officials believe is important battlefield progress, at least in the south and southwestern sectors of Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Panetta visited the country this week and wound up fielding questions about whether the recent episodes have set back the war effort and whether the timetable to withdraw troops -- pieced together so carefully more than a year ago -- should be accelerated.

U.S. analysts, meanwhile, see a lack of clarity and commitment in the Obama administration strategy for winding down the war.

Stephen Biddle, a military expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Thursday the administration's approach is "confused and uncertain."

The administration has essentially tried to use "real but limited means to secure real but limited ends" in Afghanistan, a strategy that carries the risk of ending up a "more expensive version of doing nothing," he told reporters.

"That's unfortunately where limited efforts so far are in danger of taking us," Biddle said.

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Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann in Kabul, Lolita C. Baldor in Abu Dhabi, Gene Johnson in Seattle, Adam Geller and researcher Monika Mathur in New York, and Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.

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Robert Burns can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/robertburnsAP

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