Hagel Travels To Afghanistan In First Trip As Defense Secretary

Chuck Hagel took his first trip abroad as defense secretary to Afghanistan this past weekend, and some things did not go as planned.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

North Korea's renewed threats are now part of Chuck Hagel's portfolio. The new defense secretary is already managing one war, which he went to see over the weekend.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Hagel had an eventful time in Afghanistan. First, a bomb struck the defense ministry that Hagel had been planning to visit.

INSKEEP: Then Afghan President Hamid Karzai publicly accused the United States of working with the Taliban.

MONTAGNE: Finally, Hagel's scheduled news conference with Karzai was canceled.

INSKEEP: NPR's David Welna is traveling with the defense secretary.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: The promised joint appearance of Secretary Hagel and President Karzai failed to happen after the two had dinner, due to what a senior U.S. official described as security concerns. Afghan officials blamed the cancellation on a scheduling conflict. Hagel later told reporters traveling with him that he told Karzai he looked forward to renewing a friendship that dates back to the early days of the war.

SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: We talked about everything - all the big issues. You all know what they are. I thought it was a very direct conversation.

WELNA: One of those issues was the allegation against the U.S. that Karzai had made earlier in the day. He accused the U.S. of working with the Taliban - first to stir up fears about what would happen after most coalition forces leave Afghanistan in 2014; second, Karzai said the U.S. was holding separate talks with the Taliban. Hagel seemed caught off-guard.

HAGEL: We did discuss those comments. I told the president that it was not true that the United States was unilaterally working with the Taliban in trying to negotiate anything.

WELNA: But when asked if he did not find it amazing that Karzai would make such comments shortly before hosting him for dinner, the former senator was gracious.

HAGEL: I know these are difficult issues for President Karzai and the Afghan people. And I was once a politician, so I can understand the kind of pressures that - especially leaders of countries - are always under.

WELNA: Earlier in the day, Karzai's comments were also rebuffed by the new U.S. commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, General Joseph Dunford. Like Hagel, Dunford has to work with Karzai to find a way to wind down the U.S. presence here, even as the war continues. The top U.S. general here insisted that Americans and Afghans were working well together in the effort to hand over control of the war to Afghanistan and bring U.S. troops home.

GENERAL JOSEPH DUNFORD: We do not have a broken relationship, we do not have a lack of trust; we have a relationship that actually can absorb this tension as we work through difficult issues.

WELNA: Those issues include Karzai's order, which the U.S. has not yet complied with to withdraw all its special forces units from the province of Wardak, just west of Kabul. Also, a transfer of control over the prison at Bagram Air Base to Afghanistan failed to take place as planned this past weekend. The apparent holdup: Karzai said he would free some of the detainees, a problem for the Americans. Again, General Dunford.

DUNFORD: What I need to be satisfied with as a commander is that there's a plan in place to ensure that those people who need to be off the battlefield for us to accomplish the mission and protect the force are in fact detained.

WELNA: Asked last night about the Bagram prison standoff, Hagel said that for the U.S. force protection is the bottom line.

HAGEL: So General Dunford's comments, I think, were exactly right, and I agree.

WELNA: And so ended a two-day maiden trip abroad for Hagel as defense secretary - one that he won't likely soon forget. David Welna, NPR News, Kabul, Afghanistan.

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