RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is in Afghanistan this weekend visiting U.S. troops. He arrived yesterday. It's part of a tour he's doing of the Middle East and Afghanistan to try to shore up key alliances in both regions. Those relations have been frayed by, among other things, the U.S. agreement with Iran to ease sanctions in exchange for a freeze on Iran's nuclear program. NPR's Larry Abramson is traveling with Secretary Hagel. He joins us from Kabul, Afghanistan. Larry, first off, let's talk about Afghanistan. This visit comes at a delicate time in U.S.-Afghan relations. President Hamid Karzai is refusing to sign this agreement to extend the U.S. military presence there beyond 2014. Is this the reason for Hagel's trip?
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: No, actually. Hagel says that this visit was planned a long time ago and the real reason he's here is to visit U.S. and NATO troops around the country and say thank you for their service and tell them that they're doing a good job as they begin what's going to be the final year of the U.S. combat role. And, you know, Rachel, if that agreement, that basic bilateral security agreement, isn't signed, it could be the last year entirely for Western troops in Afghanistan.
MARTIN: But the U.S. has said that this is an important agreement. If thousands of U.S. and NATO troops are to remain after 2014, this document has to get signed. Does Hagel have any plans to meet with Karzai at all?
ABRAMSON: No, he doesn't have any plans like that. This is what he said on Saturday.
SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: I never asked for a meeting with President Karzai, never suggested it in any way. I never received an invitation to meet with him.
ABRAMSON: And so the situation remains stalemated. Hagel did meet with the Afghan minister of defense and discussed this very issue. And there has been some suggestion that somebody, like the minister of defense, could sign the agreement if Karzai refuses to do it. And so perhaps the U.S. is simply trying to court favor with the rest of the government and say that Karzai is essentially is irrelevant for this process because he has to leave power in April when there will be an election.
MARTIN: Hagel's visit to Afghanistan is part of a broader trip around the Middle East. You just came from Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. And on his way home, Hagel intends to stop in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. What issues is Hagel addressing in these other countries, Larry?
ABRAMSON: So, while he was in the Gulf, he got a lot of feedback from other countries who were concerned that the U.S. rapprochement with Iran, mainly the talks that are going on about freezing Iran's nuclear programs, have made Gulf allies uneasy. They're concerned that the U.S. is backing away from its commitment to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. He assured them that that is not the case, that they are not - the U.S. is not changing its strategic posture and that the 35,000 U.S. forces in the Gulf region that are there to maintain security are going to maintain on alert and helping the Gulf remain free from Iranian influence.
MARTIN: NPR's Larry Abramson, traveling with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. He spoke to us from Kabul, Afghanistan.
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