x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Tense Kabul provides a tough start for Hagel

US defence secretary avoids questions on Karzai's accusation of US-Taliban collusion.

KABUL // It's been a rough start for the new US defence secretary, Chuck Hagel.

After surviving a combative Senate confirmation battle, he jumped on a military plane to Afghanistan and was hit with the jarring difficulties of shutting down a war in a country still racked by violence and political volatility.

His stay of less than three days in the war zone was riddled with bombings, security threats, political gridlock and wild accusations from an Afghan president bent on securing his own legacy and determined to move his fragile, war-torn country towards stability and self-governance.

Mr Hagel left Afghanistan yesterday with no real victories to tout, no solutions nailed down or hurdles overcome. Instead, during brief public comments after he met with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, on Sunday, Mr Hagel steadfastly avoided any direct talk of the escalating problems. Instead he spoke broadly of the challenges of war and the complications of politics.

"Sometimes I think we can get bogged down in the day-to-day evaluations of the minute, of the week, of the month," Mr Hagel said, once he was back inside the fortified walls of Camp Eggers, the US base in Kabul.

"Those are all metrics, those are all good guideposts, but we've got to keep in mind the larger context of where we've been; and what we've accomplished and where we're going with the big issues still hanging out there."

An early supporter of the war while he was in the US Senate, Mr Hagel later became more disillusioned with the conflict, opposing the surge of troops sent to quell the escalating violence. More recently he has warned that Americans want the US to get out of the war that has killed more than 2,000 US troops and that the administration of president Barack Obama wants to wind down.

Mr Hagel must oversee the withdrawal of 34,000 troops and thousands of containers of equipment over the next year or so. And he must do it as the Afghans put obstacles in his path and a stubborn insurgency rattles the nascent government with dramatic attacks and the promise of an early start to the spring fighting season.

In recent days, disagreements stalled efforts to turn a detention facility over to the Afghans and US forces faced mounting Afghan restrictions on their combat and training operations. A suicide bomber targeted the Afghan defence ministry a day before Mr Hagel was due to go there and, on Sunday, he cancelled his news conference because officials said they had learnt of a security threat.

In addition, Mr Karzai accused the US of colluding with the Taliban.

In the latest broadside, Mr Karzai said that two suicide bombings that killed 19 people on Saturday - one outside the Afghan defence ministry, the other near a police checkpoint in eastern Khost province - show that the Taliban is launching attacks to show that international forces will be needed after their combat mission ends in 2014.

Mr Hagel said that during his meeting and dinner at Mr Karzai's palace, he spoke "clearly and directly" to the Afghan president about the continuing problems. He would not say if Mr Karzai made the same charges of US and Taliban collusion directly to his face during the meeting.

There are about 66,000 US troops in Afghanistan, and combat forces are to fully withdraw by the end of next year. US officials have said they are considering leaving a total US and coalition force of between 8,000 and 12,000 in the country after next year, but Mr Obama has yet to make a final decision.