KABUL – One day after a deadly suicide bombing rocked central Kabul, a press conference scheduled for Sunday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was canceled because of a security concern, U.S. officials said.
Hagel’s first trip to Afghanistan as defense secretary was marred not only by security issues, but by a series of harsh statements from the mercurial Karzai, who implied Sunday the United States and the Taliban share common goals.
Hagel was also forced to reschedule a meeting Sunday with the Afghan defense minister at the Defense Ministry building, where a suicide bomber on Saturday had killed 10 people. That meeting and another with the Afghan interior minister were held at another location, officials said.
A contradictory statement released by the Afghan presidential palace on Sunday, however, claimed that the cancellation was due to “scheduling pressure.”
A Sunday night meeting and dinner between Hagel and Karzai went on ahead as planned. Hagel said he directly addressed inflammatory statements about the U.S.-Afghan relationship Karzai had made earlier in the day, when Karzai seemed to accuse the United States and the Taliban of colluding to foment violence and fear in Afghanistan.
“I spoke clearly and directly,” about the "untrue" statements, Hagel said. But he declined to report Karzai’s response.
Hagel said the meeting overall was a productive discussion of the major issues confronting Afghanistan, and that he had urged Karzai to telephone him directly for any needed assistance.
Karzai earlier in the day had been far less conciliatory.
According to a translation provided by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force personnel and described as hastily prepared, Karzai claimed the suicide blast at the Defense Ministry on Saturday, and a second bombing that killed eight people in Khost province, benefit the United States.
“Yesterday’s attack was not against the U.S., it was in their favor,” he said. “It adds to the fear of 2014, and it strengthens the presence of American and foreign forces in Afghanistan.”
The Taliban are working for the benefit of the United States, Karzai said.
"The explosions in Kabul and Khost yesterday (Saturday) showed that they are at the service of America and at the service of this phrase: 2014,” Karzai said during a nationally televised speech about the state of Afghan women, according to The Associated Press. “They are trying to frighten us into thinking that if the foreigners are not in Afghanistan, we would be facing these sorts of incidents.”
A senior U.S. official speaking on the condition of anonymity said the claims are baseless.
“This is simply incorrect,” the official said. “The United States and the government of Afghanistan share a common view of the Taliban, and that is that they’re the enemy.”
The United States is committed to working with Karzai, but the president should temper his public statements, the official said.
“We have indicated to him in private that public criticism is unhelpful to the partnership, especially when there is no basis in fact for some of the claims he makes,” the official said.
Karzai wasn’t finished, however, and later demanded that coalition troops stop abusing Afghan university students and stay off campuses.
That charge prompted a response from the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Joseph Dunford.
“There are no members of the coalition that are harassing university students,” he told journalists Sunday.
Karzai has a history of drawing attention with such statements, in one case threatening to join the Taliban himself. In recent weeks he has disagreed with the United States over issues including coalition airstrikes in support of Afghan forces and custody of Afghan prisoners.
Dunford said that despite such flare-ups on the public stage, he privately has a good working relationship with Karzai and other top Afghan leaders.
“I don’t know why President Karzai might be doing this, but I understand difficult negotiations, I understand the issues that have been raised,” Dunford said. “I guess his perspective is that maybe it’s productive to air these differences in public.”
Hagel is in Kabul to discuss the transition of security responsibility from the United States to Afghan forces as the NATO combat mission here moves toward an end in December 2014.
Early Sunday, he traveled to the Kabul Military Training Center, the largest training installation for Afghan army troops in the country. There, the former Army sergeant who served in Vietnam saw some of the training Afghan non-commissioned officers undergo.
The United States and Afghanistan currently are negotiating the size and scope of a post-2014 force that President Barack Obama has said would remain in the country solely to train Afghan troops and conduct counterterrorist operations against al-Qaida and its affiliates, but not to carry on the current war.
Karzai charged U.S. and Taliban representatives are in “daily negotiations” outside Afghanistan, and said the United States has said it no longer considers the Taliban its enemy, according to The AP.
Karzai has presented other difficulties in recent weeks as well, clamping down on U.S. support activities for Afghan troops.
After the deaths of civilians in NATO coalition airstrikes in February, he forbade Afghan troops from calling in airstrikes while fighting the Taliban.
And in late February, after villagers’ reports of killings and kidnappings by U.S. troops – hotly disputed by coalition officials – Karzai demanded that U.S. special operations troops leave Wardak province near Kabul by Monday. The demand strikes at the heart of the U.S. strategy of training Afghan troops to take over the fight against the Taliban once the NATO combat mission here ends.
Dunford said that for now, special operators remain in Wardak, but said he had committed to develop a specific transition plan for the province so Afghan troops can take over for the Americans as soon as possible.