KABUL, Afghanistan – Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel said Saturday he received assurances from Afghanistan's defense minister that a stalled security agreement with the United States would be signed in "a very timely manner."
But in a highly unusual move, Hagel chose not to meet with President Hamid Karzai, who is holding up a pact that Washington and NATO officials say is needed to plan for a post-2014 training and counterterrorism mission expected to involve thousands of troops.
Hagel said he did not think additional pressure from U.S. officials would be helpful or persuade Karzai to sign the bilateral security agreement according to the U.S. timetable – by the end of December. Karzai says he wants his successor to decide after the April 5 elections.
"There is not much I could add in a meeting with President Karzai to what's already been said," Hagel told reporters after meeting with Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi. "That's not my role to pressure presidents."
It was not immediately clear whether Karzai might perceive Hagel's decision as a personal affront or rather a snub by an exasperated Americans dignitary. But this was one of the few times a visiting defense secretary had skipped seeing Karzai during the last decade of war.
Hagel and other defense official insisted that this trip was planned largely to see troops before the holidays. But the pending agreement was discussed at length during the meeting with Mohammadi and Deputy Interior Minister Mohammad Ayub Salangi, and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi.
Despite Hagel's assertion that pressuring Karzai may not prove productive, both Hagel and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, issued separate warnings about the approaching U.S. deadline.
Dunford told reporters that while he continues to prepare for a post-2014 force that could operate under the security pact, he will have to begin planning for other options if the deal is not signed by year's end. One option, he said, is to pull out all troops.
Hagel said there has to be a cutoff point, and it may be the NATO defense ministers meeting in February.
"Some answers are going to be required" at that meeting, he said.
Karzai tentatively has endorsed the agreement and a council of tribal elders, the Loya Jirga, has said it should be signed by Jan. 1, as the U.S. has demanded.
Karzai says he wants his successor to decide after Afghanistan's April elections, and has stood his ground in the face of unrelenting pressure from diplomatic and defense officials.
Without a signed agreement, all U.S. troops would leave at the end of next year, along with all foreign forces.
Dunford said he was more concerned about the psychological effect of Karzai's failure to sign. The general said uncertainty about the future presence of coalition forces is causing a loss of confidence in Afghanistan, and said he has seen real estate prices go down and signs of "hedging behavior."
The biggest issue with the delay, he said, is not that it makes it difficult to get U.S. troops and equipment out in time, Instead, he said, is that is gives coalition nations less time to generate the political will and the resources needed to stay beyond 2014 and fund Afghan forces.
Washington and NATO officials say they want a quick decision so they can play for the next phase, which could involve about 8,000 U.S. forces and 6,000 allies troops.
Karzai has said he won't sign any agreement that allows continued raids on Afghan homes. Under Afghan law, any agreement must be signed twice – once to get it to parliament and, if approved, then by Karzai in his capacity as president.
Hagel, who arrived Saturday after attending a security conference in Bahrain, planned to visit service members around the country.
This past week, U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Washington that the White House had not instructed him to plan for an option that would leave no U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014. But he cautioned that it is a possibility, given the current impasse.
This is Hagel's second trip to Afghanistan since he began as defense chief early this year.
During his March visit, there were bombings, security threats, political gridlock and wild accusations from Karzai.
A suicide bomber targeted the Afghan defense ministry a day before Hagel was scheduled to go there, and the Pentagon chief had to cancel a planned news conference because of a security threat.
In addition, Karzai accused the U.S. of colluding with the Taliban.