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War of words erupts in Afghanistan over 2014 US troop pullout

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel responds to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's statements in which Karzai accused the U.S. and Taliban with working together.

 

KABUL — In his opening statement released at the start of his first Afghanistan visit since being named defense secretary, Chuck Hagel reminded everyone, "We are still in a war." By the time his official visit ended, after a planned joint press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai was cancelled over "security concerns," it was clear that war’s second front, the war of words, was as volatile as ever.


The press conference cancellation was announced hours after Karzai had gone on national television with another blast of criticism over the U.S. role here. He said the U.S. and the Taliban were "negotiating daily," and working in concert to ensure that coalition combat forces would remain in Afghanistan beyond the scheduled pullout in 2014. Karzai added that two deadly suicide attacks Saturday — one explosion in Kabul that Hagel actually heard from his safe location more than a mile away — were intended by the Taliban to show that U.S. and coalition forces would not be able to withdraw as planned.

"Categorically false," said the commander of coalition forces, U.S. General Joseph Dunford. A Taliban spokesman also rejected all of Karzai’s assertions unequivocally.

By Sunday night, Dunford was compelled to say the U.S. "does not have a broken relationship (with Karzai)," or a lack of trust. And Hagel told reporters that as a former politician himself he "can understand the kind of pressures national leaders are always under," and that the two countries will be able to move forward together.

Still, the dust-up over the busted joint press conference was evidence of the stubborn distance yet to be covered — and that seems in some ways to be widening — between an emerging new Afghanistan and the U.S., its chief protector and stakeholder.

Spokesman Jay Carney reacts to comments made by Afghan President Hamid Karzai in which he accused the U.S. and Taliban with working together.

One illustration of that distance — the cancellation on Saturday, even as Hagel began his round of briefings, of the planned handover to Afghan control of the Parwan prison at Bagram Air Base. To the Karzai government the ceremony would be welcome evidence of his administration’s authority and autonomy.  But the ceremony was spiked and delayed at least temporarily when it was learned the U.S. would insist that detainees it considered high risk or high value would not be included in the prisoner releases Karzai has said are essential if reconciliation with the Taliban is to go forward.

The Pentagon has canceled a scheduled joint press conference with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai citing security concerns. NBC's Mike Taibbi reports.

Another example of the stubborn distance between the Karzai government and its primary benefactor — Karzai’s order that U.S. and coalition special forces withdraw from the Kabul suburb of Wardak because of unconfirmed allegations of attacks and abusive tactics employed against civilians. Karzai had announced a two-week deadline for compliance with his order; it’s now two weeks later, with no evidence those special forces have retreated as ordered.

And Karzai’s new allegation Sunday that the U.S. and the Taliban are "negotiating daily" — in Doha, Qatar, where the Taliban have set up an office, and elsewhere — was denied by both parties but was a signal too that the Afghan leader feels the endgame might be played out in forums and in discussions in which he won’t be the controlling voice.

Despite unequivocal denials by both the U.S. and a Taliban spokesman that any negotiations are taking place, Karzai did not back off his remarks when he met privately with Hagel after their press conference was called off and replaced by a mere photo op.

"I told him it was not true ... that the U.S. unilaterally is not working with the Taliban to negotiate anything," Hagel later told reporters.

What would Karzai’s goal be in asserting the existence of a back-channel alliance between the U.S. and the Taliban?

"Political," a NATO official said, asking not to be identified. "I mean Karzai has always been a bit paranoid, and he’s got a control reflex that seems more apparent now, as he’s speaking to Afghans and to his legacy … but these comments about the U.S. and the Taliban might end up killing all possibilities for real negotiations. It’s difficult to see where (Karzai) is going."

But though the Karzai/Hagel press conference was scrapped, the two sides did issue final statements of continued solidarity.

"We talked about everything (in our private meeting)," Hagel said, "I told him that he could and should call me directly if there’s anything I can do to facilitate the resolution of any of these issues."

Karzai’s chief spokesman, Aimal Faizi, said that both Hagel and General Dunford had been responsive to President Karzai’s views. "They understand our concerns," Faizi said. "Hagel noted that both sides should learn from their mistakes."

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