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Hagel Off to Rocky Start in War-Torn Afghanistan

Afghan president accuses US forces of colluding with Taliban

- Jacob Chamberlain, staff writer

Recently confirmed US defense secretary Chuck Hagel got off to a rocky start this weekend with his first trip to Afghanistan since his nomination.

Chuck Hagel (Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo/US Department of Defence/EPA) Upon Hagel's arrival in the war-torn city, two separate suicide bombings across the country, at least one of them so far claimed by Taliban officials, took the lives of 18 civilians, many of them children. A Taliban spokesman said that the Kabul explosion, which took place in close range from where Hagel was holding a press briefing, was intended as a message for the defense secretary.

Hagel's aides told Reuters that the morning briefing pressed on - even as an announcement about the incident came over the loudspeakers at the NATO facility hosting him at the time.

However, following the explosions, on Sunday Afghan President Hamid Karzai accused the Taliban and the U.S. of working together to convince Afghans that violence will worsen if the U.S. continues to pull out troops.

The bombings, which the Taliban claimed responsibility for, "were not to show [Taliban] prowess to the United States. They were in the service of the United States. They were in the service of the rhetoric of '2014'. It was meant to scare us, [to show] if they [foreign forces] are not here, 'we will not leave you alone,'" Karzai said.

And lastly, US defense secretary Chuck Hagel has now cancelled plans for his first joint news conference with Karzai, citing "security concerns." But as the Guardian reports, "the decision came just hours after the Afghan leader accused America of colluding with the Taliban to keep foreign troops on Afghan soil. Afghan officials said the presidential palace, where the men planned to meet the press, was totally safe."

"It doesn't make any sense," said one Afghan official, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to discuss the sensitive issue. "It was supposed to take place at the palace, we don't see any security problems there."

The two men had "plenty of contentious issues to discuss," the Associated Press reports. "The Afghan and U.S. government are negotiating a security pact for the long-term presence of American forces in Afghanistan — the difficulty illustrated when a deal to transfer a U.S. prison outside of Kabul to Afghan authority on Saturday fell through at the last moment."

AP adds:

U.S. and Afghan officials are also at odds over a Karzai demand that U.S. special operations forces withdraw from a province neighboring Kabul by Monday over allegations they participated in torture and extrajudicial killing — charges U.S. officials deny. [...]

Karzai raised another difficult issue when he denounced the alleged seizure of a university student Saturday by Afghan forces his aide said were working for the CIA. It was unclear why the student was detained.

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