Hagel visits Afghanistan but doesn't plan to meet its president

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived in the Afghan capital Saturday for an unannounced visit that comes as Washington and President Hamid Karzai remain at loggerheads over the terms of a plan that would keep American troops in the country beyond the end of next year.

Mr. Hagel is the latest senior U.S. official to visit Kabul in recent weeks, but unlike other dignitaries who have sought to coax Mr. Karzai into signing a bilateral security agreement, the secretary of defense opted to steer clear of the president.

That rare break with protocol seemed to signal a new strategy to end the impasse over the bilateral security agreement that could keep thousands of foreign troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014. U.S. officials appear to have concluded that ignoring Mr. Karzai could be more effective than continuing to beg him to ink the deal.

"We should not be in a position of having to coerce the leader of another country to have us be a presence in his country," Mr. Hagel said.

Hours after his arrival, Kabul was abuzz with conflicting news reports over whether Mr. Karzai and Mr. Hagel would meet for dinner. But Mr. Karzai's spokesman, Aimal Faizi, said the president never extended a formal dinner invitation to Mr. Hagel.

Mr. Hagel said he had not asked for a meeting with Mr. Karzai. "This trip is about the troops," he told reporters Saturday night.

Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said American officials have made their position abundantly clear to Mr. Karzai.

"All that needs to be said has been said," he said.

Mr. Hagel and Gen. Dunford declined to set a firm deadline for Mr. Karzai to sign the document, but they signaled that a NATO ministerial meeting scheduled for late February could mark a key turning point for allies that are contemplating contributing troops and money for post-2014 Afghanistan.

Gen. Dunford said the uncertainty about the international role here after next year is driving a flight of capital and a drop in real estate prices, as Afghans increasingly look to the coming months with dread.

On Saturday night, Mr. Hagel met with the Afghan defense minister, the head of the army and the deputy interior minister to reassure them that the United States is not on the brink of abandoning Afghanistan.

"We are continuing our support in every program," Mr. Hagel said. "We want the Afghans to succeed."

Mr. Hagel's visit comes two days after James Dobbins, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, reported having made little progress in a meeting with Mr. Karzai.

The bilateral security agreement that Washington and Kabul negotiated appeared to be on solid footing when Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Kabul in October to negotiate the final details. A traditional consultative body appointed by Mr. Karzai endorsed the pact soon afterward, but the president stunned his Western benefactors by making a series of demands at the end of the summit and suggesting the deal should be signed only after a new Afghan president has been elected in the spring.



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