KABUL - Kabul appeared to step back Saturday from a call on US troops to leave villages and withdraw to bases, saying the demand was “nothing new” and part of the Afghan leader’s long-held position.

Presidency spokesman Aimal Faizi made the remarks to AFP after a telephone call between US President Barack Obama and Afghan leader Hamid Karzai in which they agreed to stick to a transfer to Afghan control by the end of 2014.

On Thursday, Kabul announced that Karzai had told US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that international forces should leave villages and that NATO should handover to Afghan forces in 2013.

US officials said Karzai’s statement was “consistent” with an agreed timetable, but it had provoked widespread concern that NATO’s combat operations would be in jeopardy, two years before the scheduled withdrawal of most troops. Faizi said a foreign troop presence creates problems in Afghan villages, “proved” by the recent killings of 16 civilians — most of them women and children — in an attack blamed on a lone American soldier.

“This is not a new demand. We have been asking foreign troops not to enter Afghan homes and villages for years,” Karzai’s spokesman told AFP. “This is the demand of Afghans as well, they have suffered a lot. It is now time for our security forces to step in and provide security for our villagers, our people,” he added.

Afghan and US defence officials will hold meetings to discuss “the issues of withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghan villages and the completion of the transition process by 2013”, Faizi said.

On Friday, the White House said Obama and Karzai reaffirmed their commitment to a timetabled process of transition in which Afghan forces would “have full responsibility for security across the country by the end of 2014”.

The Afghan palace said they “also agreed to further discuss concerns voiced by President Karzai about the presence of foreign troops in Afghan villages”.