Troubles mount up for Hagel on first Afghan visit

PTI Kabul | Updated on March 12, 2018

US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel’s first trip to Afghanistan was overshadowed yesterday by a contentious speech by President Hamid Karzai and a security scare that forced their press conference to be cancelled.

Karzai and Hagel’s appearance in front of the cameras was to be a key part of the Pentagon chief’s visit to Afghanistan as strained US-Afghan relations focus on the withdrawal of NATO-led foreign troops by the end of 2014.

But the event was scrapped just a few hours before it was due to be held at the presidential palace in Kabul, with US officials citing unspecified security concerns.

Hagel’s trip was also marked by two deadly suicide bombs on Saturday – one within his earshot in Kabul – and a further delay to the planned transfer of the controversial Bagram jail from US to Afghan control.

In a provocative speech yesterday, Karzai said the US was in daily talks with the Taliban and that insurgent suicide attacks enabled the international military force to justify its presence in Afghanistan.

“The bombs that were detonated in Kabul and Khost were not a show of force, they were serving America,” he said in the televised speech, referring to the two suicide blasts in which 19 people were killed.

“It is their slogan for 2014, scaring us that if the US is not here our people will be eliminated,” Karzai, who is known for making inflammatory remarks, said.

Hagel tried to downplay tensions with Karzai, saying after their meeting that he was pleased to renew an old friendship.

“He has his ways,” Hagel said. “There will be new challenges, there will be new issues. It shouldn’t come as a surprise. But I don’t think any of these are challenges that we can’t work (our) way through.

“I told the president that it was not true that the United States was unilaterally working with the Taliban,” he added.

“The fact is any prospect for peace or political settlements that has to be led by the Afghans.”

General Joseph Dunford, commander of the NATO forces in Afghanistan, had earlier strongly criticised Karzai’s speech and was also forced to deny that the US and Taliban were working together.

“I don’t know why President Karzai might be doing this,” he said. “I guess his perspective is maybe it’s productive to air these differences in public. But I let others judge if that’s being particularly helpful.”

Hagel and Karzai’s talks came as the two countries face up to a testing transition phase in which NATO-led troops exit Afghanistan and Afghan forces take on fighting the Taliban alone.

The US and Afghanistan are also negotiating a strategic pact that will determine the US presence in Afghanistan after the end of the international combat mission.

Karzai raised another point of friction yesterday by issuing a decree banning international forces from entering university grounds after alleged harassment of students.

Published on March 11, 2013

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