Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday defended the administration’s decision to launch peace talks with the Taliban, saying the move was “worth the risk” and could ease the withdrawal of U.S. forces out of Afghanistan.
“We've always supported a peaceful resolution to the end of the bloodshed in the war in Afghanistan," said Hagel in a speech at the University of Nebraska. "I think it's worth the risk."
Hagel also said that Afghan President Hamid Karzai would have to play a key role in the talks, insisting that any effort to broker a deal with the Taliban “can't be done without President Karzai [or] without the government of Afghanistan."
Earlier this week, the administration announced that they would begin direct talks in Qatar with Taliban representatives. The decision coincided with the official handover of security operations from U.S. and allied forces to Afghan troops.
The decision sparked outrage from Karzai’s government, which suspended talks with the U.S. on plans for a post-war security deal.
“In view of the contradictions between acts and the statements made by the United States of America in regard to the peace process, the Afghan government suspended the negotiations,” said a statement from Kabul released Wednesday.
Prior to announcing the Taliban talks, U.S. officials had said Kabul would take the lead in peace negotiations with the terror group, working off a plan drafted by the Karzai administration.
President Obama downplayed the rift on Wednesday, insisting that Karzai had been kept in the loop about plans for formal peace talks with the Taliban.
Karzai's decision to cut off talks with Washington is only the latest instance in a contentious relationship with the U.S.
In the past, the Afghan leader has accused U.S. and coalition forces of colluding with the Taliban, as a way to undercut his hold on power in the run up to the White House's 2014 withdrawal deadline.
The final 32,000 U.S. troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan after the country's presidential elections in April 2014, officially ending the American war effort there.
In February, the Afghan president ordered U.S. special operations units out of Wardak province, amid allegations of murder, torture and abuse of Afghan civilians at the hands of those forces.
Karzai also demanded the CIA ramp down its paramilitary operations in the country, claiming those operations were undermining efforts by Afghan military and intelligence to provide security.
Many inside Washington see Karzai's latest outburst as another example of an increasing trend among Afghan leaders at the national and local level of playing to the growing anti-American sentiment within the country.
Sensing the end is near, local and national leaders are doing all they can to solidify their power bases across Afghanistan.
However, Hagel defended the Afghan president's actions, saying Karzai was simply acting in the best interests of the Afghan people.
"I've dealt with President Karzai right from the beginning ... I've known him since 2001 and have a very good relationship with him," Hagel said. "But he represents his government, his people. He needs to do what he thinks is right," the Pentagon chief added. Karzai's actions have been a source of frustration inside the White House and Pentagon, "but we have to continue to work at it," Hagel said. "This is really about ... giving the people of Afghanistan [the] rights and freedom to make their own lives," said the Pentagon chief.