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.”
The U.S. military is expected to announce disciplinary action on Monday in response to two incidents that provoked outrage in Afghanistan early this year, one over a video depicting Marines urinating on corpses and another involving burning copies of the Koran, U.S. officials said.
The Army was expected to announce that six soldiers would receive administrative punishments over an incident in which copies of the Koran and other religious material were removed from a prison library and sent to an incinerator to be destroyed, a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.
The incident in February touched off several days of rioting and attacks on U.S. troops after local workers found charred copies of the Koran among the trash at the incinerator at the Bagram base north of Kabul.
FLASH: Security team aboard US Naval vessel fires on boat
A security team aboard a US Navy vessel has fired on a small boat near the United Arab Emirates after it disregarded warnings, a U.S. Defense official said Monday.
The motor boat had been rapidly approaching the USNS Rappahannock and failed to respond to warnings, the official said. Watch Reuters.com for more.
The official said the boat departed after being fired upon, adding that it’s unclear if there are any injuries or deaths.
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.
Under new rules set to be unveiled on Thursday, the Defense Department would continue to prohibit women from serving in infantry, armor and special operations units whose main function is to engage in front-line combat, defense officials said.
The new policy would open about 14,000 jobs to women by enabling them to take positions such as medics, intelligence officers, radio operators and military police at the battalion level, which had previously been considered too close to combat, officials said.