By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
KABUL, Afghanistan, Dec. 7, 2013 – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met shortly after his arrival here today with senior Afghan leaders, but said his visit is aimed mostly at encouraging and thanking U.S. troops deployed for the holidays.
Hagel met with Afghan Defense Minister Bismullah Khan Mohammadi, Deputy Interior Minister Mohammad Ayub Salangi, and Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi, the Afghan army’s chief of staff.
The conversation, he said, touched on progress in the Afghan national security forces, the coming elections, and confidence in “all the big issues,” including the still-unsigned bilateral security agreement between Afghanistan and the United States.
Hagel said he wanted to reassure the Afghan leaders of America’s continued assistance to their country despite the uncompleted agreement.
“We are continuing our support in every program in every way,” he told reporters traveling with him after the meeting. Both Afghanistan’s interests and the world’s will be served if Afghanistan’s security force and government institutions are sound, the secretary said.
“And it’s in our interests,” Hagel added.
He acknowledged, however, that confidence drains away “in every dimension” the longer the accord goes unsigned. The NATO International Security Assistance Force mission still wraps up at the end of 2014, he pointed out. NATO has said it will use the U.S.-Afghanistan agreement as a pattern for its own agreement with Afghanistan, and a gathering of defense ministers is set for late February in part to do just that.
“We had a good discussion about that,” Hagel said.
Meanwhile, the secretary said, he’s here “to spend a day with our troops,” thanking them and letting them know he understands that times can be tough for men and women away from home and from their families, especially during the holidays.
Hagel said he’ll tell service members, and will ask them to relay to their families, “that we’re thinking about them, we care about them, [and] we appreciate what they’re doing.”
Hagel said during his troop visits tomorrow he also will listen to local Afghan leaders and speak with military officials in the places he’ll visit.
The secretary said he’ll also congratulate Afghan forces on the recent loya jirga, or grand council, which brought about 3,000 representatives to Kabul in November to examine the bilateral security agreement. That gathering was unaffected by incidents, he said, which demonstrates the growing capabilities of Afghans in uniform.
The secretary said the council’s “overwhelming and clearly pronounced” recommendation was that Afghan President Hamid Karzai should sign the accord no later than the end of December. Karzai has so far refused to sign.
Mohammadi assured him today that the security agreement will be signed “in a timely manner,” Hagel told reporters.
“It is the people of Afghanistan who have spoken on this,” he said, “and it’s something that we and all of our ISAF partners realize is critical to our future and any enduring presence.”
In response to a question on whether he would meet with President Hamid Karzai, Hagel said he would not. “I never asked for a meeting with President Karzai -- I never received an invitation to meet with him,” he added. “I didn’t expect a meeting with him; this trip is about the troops.”
Several members of the Obama administration have come to Kabul in recent weeks and months to emphasize that the agreement is central to continued U.S. and international assistance for Afghanistan, the secretary noted. He added that his trip this week has been long-planned for the sole purpose of “reaching out to our troops, thanking our troops, wishing them happy holidays.”
The secretary said he doesn’t believe he has much to add that hasn’t been discussed with the Afghan president.
“More to the point, I don’t think pressure from the United States is going to be helpful. … The people of Afghanistan spoke rather plainly and clearly and dramatically,” he said. “That’s not my role, to pressure presidents.”