US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told US troops yesterday that he backed a NATO force playing a role in Afghanistan after next year, as Washington and Afghan President Hamid Karzai wrangle over a stalled security pact.
Hagel traveled to the southern province of Helmand to meet troops a day after further tensions over the security pact that would allow NATO forces to stay in the country after next year.
“I believe there is a role for our coalition partners and the United States, but that depends on the Afghan people,” Hagel told US soldiers in a question-and-answer session.
“If the people of Afghanistan want to continue that relationship, then we will,” he added.
US commanders were looking at “a new phase for our mission to train, assist, advise and counterterrorism,” he said.
Meetings with Karzai have been customary over the years for Pentagon chiefs, but Hagel said on Saturday after his arrival that he had no plans to meet the Afghan president during his weekend visit.
As US President Barack Obama’s National Security Adviser Susan Rice and US Secretary of State John Kerry had already had frank discussions with Karzai urging him to sign the security agreement, Hagel said there was no point in him repeating the US position.
“There’s not much I can add in a meeting with President Karzai to what’s already been said,” he said on Saturday.
Hagel did meet the Afghan defense minister, who assured him the security agreement would be signed in “a timely manner.”
Karzai initially endorsed the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), but has since refused to sign and issued fresh demands.
The agreement sets the legal conditions to permit US and other forces to operate in the country beyond next year.
However, without a signed deal, countries ready to send troops to a post-next year training mission cannot make budget plans or secure political approval, Hagel said.
Karzai has said the signature could take place after elections in April, but Hagel said that would push the timeline into the middle of next year as the polls are expected to result in a run-off vote.
Eventually there will be “a cut-off point” to cancel a post-next year mission, he said on Saturday, adding that he was “not prepared to give a date on that.”
He said a meeting of NATO defense ministers in February would be crucial for military planners and governments “and some answers are going to be required at that NATO ministerial.”
There are currently 46,000 US troops and 27,000 soldiers from other coalition countries in Afghanistan, however almost the entire NATO-led force is scheduled to pull out by the end of next year.
With the long war in Afghanistan often overlooked in the US and Europe, he told the group of US Marines and Army troops yesterday that they were not forgotten.
“I know more than occasionally you wonder if anybody is paying attention, whether anybody cares,” Hagel said.
“But we do. Our country cares, we do know what you’re doing. And we appreciate it, very much,” he said.
Under a proposed post-next year mission, about 12,000 troops — mostly US ones — would remain in the country to train Afghans and counter militant activities.
In 2011, the US withdrew from Iraq when it failed to secure a similar troop status accord.