By Meghashyam Mali - 03/11/13 10:48 AM EDT
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Sunday rejected Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s claims that the U.S. and Taliban were holding secret talks, and said he sought to reassure Kabul there were no back-channel negotiations.
"The fact is, any prospect for peace or political settlements — that has to be led by the Afghans. That has to come from the Afghan side," Hagel said, according to reports. "Obviously, the United States will support efforts if they are led by the Afghans to come to some possible resolution."
His comments came after a suicide bomb attack at the Afghan Defense Ministry that killed 9 civilians, shortly after Hagel’s arrival in the country for his first visit as Defense secretary.
Karzai’s comments and the violence threatened to mar Hagel’s visit. On Sunday, officials were also forced to cancel a press conference with Hagel and Karzai because of a security threat.
Hagel later met with the Afghan president privately to discuss his comments during dinner on Sunday and said he had sought to reassure Karzai of U.S. support.
“I think he understands where we are and where we've been, and hopefully where we're going together,” Hagel told reporters after the meeting.
The commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan on Sunday also rejected Karzai’s allegations as “categorically false.”
“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 International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Commander Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford.
“We have no reason to be colluding with the Taliban,” he added.
Karzai’s comments are only the latest dispute as the Obama administration begins withdrawing remaining military forces and handing over security control to local Afghan forces.
Karzai earlier this month called on American and NATO commanders to cede control of U.S.-backed local militias to Kabul. And last month, reports said that Karzai had ordered U.S. special forces to cease operations in a key province, alleging that the soldiers had abducted and tortured civilians. Karzai also moved to ban his country’s military from requesting air support from allied forces during operations in residential areas last month.
Those moves are likely to complicate U.S.-Afghan relations as the two nations negotiate an agreement governing the size and role of U.S. forces in the country after security operations are handed over to Afghan troops by the end of 2014.
All U.S. combat troops are slated to leave the country by that year.