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Troubles mount up for Hagel on first Afghan visit

Chuck Hagel (L) walks with Afghanistan's Defence Minister Bismallah Khan Mohammadi (R) on March 10, 2013
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) walks from a meeting with Afghanistan's Defence Minister Bismallah Khan Mohammadi (R) at the International Security Assistance Force headquartersin Kabul on March 10, 2013. Hagel's first trip to Afghanistan was over

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's first trip to Afghanistan was overshadowed on Sunday by a contentious speech by President Hamid Karzai and a security scare that forced their press conference to be cancelled.

Karzai and Hagel's appearance in front of the cameras was to be a key part of the Pentagon chief's visit to Afghanistan as strained US-Afghan relations focus on the withdrawal of NATO-led foreign troops by the end of 2014.

But the event was scrapped just a few hours before it was due to be held at the presidential palace in Kabul, with US officials citing unspecified security concerns.

Hagel's trip was also marked by two deadly suicide bombs on Saturday -- one within his earshot in Kabul -- and a further delay to the planned transfer of the controversial Bagram jail from US to Afghan control.

In a provocative speech on Sunday, Karzai said the US was in daily talks with the Taliban and that insurgent suicide attacks enabled the international military force to justify its presence in Afghanistan.

"The bombs that were detonated in Kabul and Khost were not a show of force, they were serving America," he said in the televised speech, referring to the two suicide blasts in which 19 people were killed.

"It is their slogan for 2014, scaring us that if the US is not here our people will be eliminated," Karzai, who is known for making inflammatory remarks, said.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks at a gathering to mark International Women's Day, in Kabul on March 10, 2013
Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks at a gathering of women to mark International Women's Day, in Kabul on March 10, 2013.

Hagel tried to downplay tensions with Karzai, saying after their meeting that he was pleased to renew an old friendship.

"He has his ways," Hagel said. "There will be new challenges, there will be new issues. It shouldn't come as a surprise... but I don't think any of these are challenges that we can't work (our) way through.

"I told the president that it was not true that the United States was unilaterally working with the Taliban," he added. "The fact is any prospect for peace or political settlements, that has to be led by the Afghans."

General Joseph Dunford, commander of the NATO forces in Afghanistan, had earlier strongly criticised Karzai's speech and was also forced to deny that the US and Taliban were working together.

"I don't know why President Karzai might be doing this," he said. "I guess his perspective is maybe it's productive to air these differences in public... but I let others judge if that's being particularly helpful."

Hagel and Karzai's talks came as the two countries face up to a testing transition phase in which NATO-led troops exit Afghanistan and Afghan forces take on fighting the Taliban alone.

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks to the press in Kabul on March 10, 2013
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks to the press following his meeting with Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai in Kabul on March 10, 2013.

The US and Afghanistan are also negotiating a strategic pact that will determine the US presence in Afghanistan after the end of the international combat mission.

Karzai raised another point of friction on Sunday by issuing a decree banning international forces from entering university grounds after alleged harassment of students.

Also troubling US-Afghan ties has been a long dispute over the fate of suspected militants held by the US at Bagram jail.

A final hand-over scheduled on Saturday was delayed due to last-minute disagreements, officials for both sides said.

"There's probably a slight difference of perspective between us and the Afghans and we're working out that right now," Dunford admitted.

"Transitions are tough," he said. "Our relationship is changing, it's maturing, we're moving into support as they move into the lead and we're going to have to grind through issues as they occur."

He denied the allegations of NATO harassment of students and declined to say when US special forces would leave Wardak province despite a deadline set by Karzai two weeks ago that expired on Sunday.

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