Security Risks, Frayed Relations Dog US, Afghans

Article excerpt

KABUL, Afghanistan A series of security problems and fractured relations with Afghan leaders plagued Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's first trip here as Pentagon chief.

On Sunday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai accused the U.S. of working with the Taliban to show that violence in the country will worsen if most coalition troops leave.

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Joseph Dunford, quickly rejected Karzai's charges as "categorically false." But the accusations were just the latest in a series of disputes that have frayed relations between the two nations as the U.S. works to wind down the war and turn the country's security over to the Afghans.

Speaking to reporters shortly after Karzai made the comments, Dunford said the Afghan leader had never expressed such views to him but said it was understandable that tension would arise as the coalition balances the need to complete its mission with the Afghans' move to exercise more sovereignty.

"We have fought too hard over the past 12 years, 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 last 12 years to ever think that violence or instability would be to our advantage," said Dunford.

Dunford's comments came, however, soon after U.S. officials canceled a news conference with Hagel and Karzai because of a security threat just a day after a suicide bomber on a bicycle struck outside the Afghan Defense Ministry, killing nine Afghan civilians and wounding 14 others.

Hagel heard the explosion from the safe location where he was meeting with Afghan officials but was never in danger.

The security problems compounded a series of flare-ups in recent weeks, including a dispute that has stalled the transfer of a U.S. prison to Afghan authority as well as Karzai's order to expel U.S. special operations forces out of Wardak province, which lies just outside the capital, because of allegations that Afghans working with the commandos were involved in abusive behavior.

Hagel met with Karzai Sunday night and said he had discussed all the key issues with the president. …