By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
KABUL, Afghanistan, March 10, 2013 – After his first meeting with Afghanistan’s president as head of the U.S. military today, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the encounter featured “clear, direct conversation.”
NATO International Security Assistance Force commander Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., U.S. Ambassador James B. Cunningham and other senior U.S. officials also attended.
In a speech earlier today, Karzai seemed to suggest the United States and the Taliban were conspiring to keep the level of violence in Afghanistan high to ensure the continued presence of U.S. troops here beyond 2014.
“We did discuss those comments,” the secretary said, responding to a reporter’s question about his meeting with Karzai. “I told the president it was not true that the United States was unilaterally working with the Taliban in trying to negotiate anything.”
Any negotiation with the Taliban to build peace and political consensus in Afghanistan must come from the Afghan government, Hagel said. “Obviously, the United States will support efforts, if they are led by the Afghans, to come to some possible resolution, if that eventually evolves,” he added.
Later in his comments, Hagel acknowledged that “when a nation would … think of engaging an enemy they’re still at war with, it’s difficult.” But he added that he always has believed it’s wise for nations to engage with and reach out to each other.
“That doesn’t mean you are prepared to negotiate; it may never get to that point,” he said. “But I think it’s far preferable to war.”
Hagel’s first visit to Afghanistan as secretary has been eventful. Yesterday, his first full day here, he attended a briefing within earshot of a deadly blast near the defense ministry that killed nine Afghan civilians and injured at least 14 others. Those in attendance reported they could hear the explosion clearly, though they didn’t immediately know the source.
Today, a scheduled Karzai-Hagel news conference was called off, and Hagel’s planned visits to the Defense and Interior ministers at their respective headquarters were shifted to an ISAF installation.
U.S. officials said security considerations led to moving the ministerial meetings to ISAF facilities and cancelling the news conference. A statement from the presidential palace said the media event was cancelled because of schedule pressures.
Hagel secretary appeared unfazed by those events. “When you spend 48 hours in Afghanistan or anywhere else that’s too dangerous,” he told reporters, “you recognize the complications that exist every day.”
The solution to those complications may be imperfect, Hagel said, but “we should always be mindful of the higher purpose of what we’re doing and why.”
It’s easy in a war zone to get focused on issues of the day, week or month, Hagel said. While the metrics of the moment are good guideposts, the secretary added, “we’ve got to keep in mind the larger context of where we’ve been, what we’ve accomplished and where we’re going with the big issues.”
The secretary offered three other observations about his trip, the first he has made to Afghanistan since 2008, when he was part of a congressional delegation along with then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama. His current trip has let him see, Hagel said, that “a lot of things have gone right” in the interim.
“A lot has happened in this country, and a lot of it’s been very good,” he added.
His second takeaway, he said, was that much of that success can be attributed to the efforts of U.S. troops and diplomatic staffs, supporting dedicated generals and ambassadors.
“The quality of our people doesn’t really ever change,” he said. “The American serviceman and woman [and] our diplomats, … especially in the war zones, what they have to deal with every day and the sacrifices they make -- it’s pretty remarkable.”
Third, he said, the transition in Afghanistan is a critically important time. As U.S. and coalition forces redefine their roles and Afghan forces assume greater responsibility, he said, there will be new challenges and new issues to face beyond the battlefield.
“It’s a different time, a different dynamic, a different environment,” he said. “I don’t think any of these are challenges that we can’t work our way through.”
From 2008 to now, the secretary said, he has seen dramatic changes in Afghanistan and a renewed commitment from both NATO and Afghan leaders. Hagel said that -- coupled with his great faith in U.S. military leaders and diplomats in Afghanistan -- tells him “we’re on the right path, and I think we will meet these transition dates.”
Hagel met separately this afternoon with Afghan Defense Minister Bismullah Khan Mohammadi and Interior Minister Ghulam Mujtaba Patang. This morning, the secretary also visited the Kabul Military Training Center, where he heard briefings on noncommissioned officer battle staff training, the Afghan sergeants major academy, and female NCO training.