Afghan and American officials provided differing explanations for the cancellation of a joint news conference scheduled for Sunday night that had been expected to be the centerpiece of Hagel’s trip. U.S. officials said they scrapped the event in consultation with the Afghan government because of an unspecified security threat. Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, rejected the notion that the palace would have been a dangerous place to hold a news conference.
“From our side, we saw no threat,” he said.
At best, the move left the impression that after more than a decade of war and billions of U.S. dollars spent, the United States deemed the risk of holding a news conference in the most barricaded quarter of the capital as unreasonably high. In stark contrast to Kabul visits by other U.S. defense secretaries, the trip did not include upbeat public pronouncements by Hagel about the state of the U.S. mission.
Hagel and Karzai did meet privately Sunday night. After the meeting, the secretary told reporters he was hopeful the two countries could overcome the latest crisis. “I know these are difficult issues for President Karzai and the Afghan people,” Hagel said.
In a televised speech about violence against women, Karzai said two fatal bombings carried out Saturday, including one outside the Defense Ministry, should not be interpreted as a Taliban show of force aimed at undermining the U.S. military, which is considering keeping a small force in Afghanistan after its wartime mandate expires at the end of 2014.
“In reality, the bombs that went off yesterday under the name of the Taliban were a service to the foreigners,” Karzai said, casting doubt on the assertion of responsibility made by the Taliban, which said that the attacks were carried out to mar Hagel’s visit. Karzai said the blasts helped Americans justify a prolonged troop presence in Afghanistan. “We have been down this road before too many times,” he added.
U.S. officials struggled to make sense of the tone and timing of Karzai’s remarks, but the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan dismissed the idea that the U.S. military could be complicit in attacks.
“We have fought too hard over the past 12 years,” Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. told reporters in Kabul on Sunday. “We have shed too much blood over the past 12 years, we have done too much to help the Afghan security forces grow over the past 12 years to think that violence or instability would be to our advantage.”