It was a harrowing international debut for Chuck Hagel, whose first trip to Afghanistan as U.S. defense secretary went dramatically off-script and challenged the American narrative about the 11-year-old war.
His first full day in Afghanistan began with the sound of suicide bomb attack about a kilometer away from his morning meetings at a NATO facility. But the real damage came the next day when Washington’s mercurial ally in the war, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, accused the United States of colluding with the Taliban hours before the two met.
Put in an awkward position, Hagel appeared cautious and at pains to avoid sharply criticizing the Afghan leader, even as he firmly disputed Karzai’s assertions. Having weathered a brutal confirmation battle last month, the former two-term Republican senator at one point even appeared to commiserate with Karzai.
“I was once a politician,” Hagel, 66, told reporters traveling with him. “So I can understand the kind of pressures - especially leaders of countries - are always under.”
An Afghan man with mental health problems shields his face from the camera as he is chained to a wall of a room at the Mia Ali Baba shrine, in line with a traditional belief that spending 40 days chained in isolation at the shrine can cure the illness, in Jalalabad July 9, 2012.
Afghanistan is struggling to fight the mental health problems that afflict some of the population after decades of violence, according to Abdul Rasool, an official from the health department of Jalalabad province. REUTERS/Parwiz
An Army captain who collapsed and died in Afghanistan while communicating with his wife over Skype was not shot and his body showed no immediate evidence of trauma beyond minor abrasions, an Army spokesman said on Monday.
The Virginia-based U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) said its investigation into Captain Bruce Clark’s May 1 death is continuing.
“Although we have not completely ruled it out to ensure a complete and thorough investigation is conducted, we do not suspect foul play in the death of Captain Clark at this point in our ongoing investigation,” said CID spokesperson Chris Grey.
Clark’s family released two statements over the weekend on his death, according to USA Today.
Heavy explosions, rockets and gunfire rattled Kabul on Sunday as Afghanistan’s Taliban launched a “spring offensive” with multiple attacks targeting Western embassies, the NATO force’s headquarters and the parliament building.
The assault, one of the most serious on the capital since U.S.-backed Afghan forces removed the Taliban from power in 2001, highlighted the ability of militants to strike the heavily guarded diplomatic zone even after more than 10 years of war.
It was also another election-year setback in Afghanistan for U.S. President Barack Obama, who wants to present the long campaign against the Taliban as a success before the departure of most foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.
“These attacks are the beginning of the spring offensive and we had planned them for months,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters.
U.S. authorities have given cash compensation to the families of Afghans killed in a shooting rampage allegedly carried out by an American soldier in Kandahar province, a family member and a tribal elder said on Sunday.
The families received around $50,000 for each person killed and about $10,000 for each wounded in the shootings in two villages in Panjwai district earlier this month. Afghan officials say 16 people, including nine children and women, were killed in the attacks.
“We were invited by the foreign and Afghan officials in Panjwai yesterday and they said this money is an assistance from Obama,” Haji Jan Agha, who said he lost his cousins, told Reuters, referring to U.S. President Barack Obama.
The United States said on Wednesday it appears to be on track to sign a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan charting their future relations during or before a late May NATO summit.
U.S. and Afghan officials have been trying to negotiate an accord for a long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan beyond a 2014 deadline for most NATO combat forces to withdraw, allowing advisers and possibly some special forces to stay on.
The two countries earlier signed a deal on the transfer of a major U.S.-run prison to Afghan authority, leaving military raids on Afghan homes conducted at night as the final sticking point for reaching a deal.
A besieged gunman suspected of shooting dead seven people in the name of al Qaeda boasted to police on Wednesday he had brought France to its knees and said his only regret was not having been able to carry out his plans for more killings.
In an unfolding drama that has riveted France, about 300 police, some in body armor, cordoned off a five-storey building in a suburb of Toulouse where the 24-year-old Muslim shooter, identified as Mohamed Merah, is holed up.
Authorities said the gunman, a French citizen of Algerian origin, had been to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he claimed to have received training from al Qaeda.
Suspected insurgents opened fire on Tuesday on senior Afghan investigators of the massacre of 16 civilians by a lone U.S. soldier, Afghan officials said, just hours after the Taliban threatened to behead American troops to avenge the killings.
The gunmen shot from long range at two of President Hamid Karzai’s brothers, Shah Wali Karzai and Abdul Qayum Karzai, and security officials at the site of the massacre in Kandahar’s Panjwai district.
Karzai’s brothers were unharmed in the brief battle, which began during meetings with local people at a mosque near Najiban and Alekozai villages, but a soldier was killed and a civilian wounded. The area is a Taliban stronghold and a supply route.
The Taliban had earlier threatened reprisals for the weekend shooting spree, which came weeks after deadly riots across the country over the burning of copies of the Koran by U.S. troops at NATO’s main base in the country. That violence led to calls to accelerate a 2014 goal for the exit of most foreign combat troops.