Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel insisted Saturday that the absence of a meeting between him Afghan President Hamid Karzai during his visit to Kabul didn't signal a falling-out over Karzai's delay in signing an accord on the two nations' relations after next years' planned completion of the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops.
While downplaying possible tensions, Hagel made it clear that time is running short for Karzai to sign the bilateral security agreement and said the deal's approval last month by an assembly of Afghan elders called the Loya Jirga means the people of Afghanistan have spoken in support.
After meeting with Afghan Defense Minister Bismullah Khan Mohammadi, Hagel said he'd told his Afghan counterpart that continued delay in signing the accord would create difficulties for Afghanistan, the United States and its NATO allies.
"The longer the bilateral security agreement goes without being signed, that affects confidence in every dimension of how the Afghan people, their army, their leaders go forward post-2014," Hagel told reporters in Kabul. "It directly affects our (International Security Assistance Force) partners, our planning, our support for them."
Hagel noted that the Loya Jirga, a council of about 2,500 local leaders, had urged Karzai to sign the security agreement by the end of this month as the United States desires. Karzai wants to wait until after the Afghan presidential elections April 5, 2014.
Hagel said that Mohammadi had assured him the deal "would be signed in a very timely manner," though he didn't specify whether that meant by the end of the year.
Although Hagel's trip to Afghanistan had not been disclosed publicly in advance, he said it had been "planned weeks ago" and that its main purpose was for him to visit Sunday with U.S. troops.
Meeting with Karzai was never part of his itinerary, Hagel said, noting that he couldn't add anything to what National Security Adviser Susan Rice told Karzai two weeks ago during talks in Kabul.
"I never asked for a meeting with President Karzai," Hagel said. "That was not the purpose of my trip, never suggested it in any way. I never received an invitation to meet with him. I didn't expect a meeting with him. As I have noted, explained, this trip is about the troops."
Hagel added "that's not my role to pressure presidents."
Hagel suggested, without saying so directly, that Karzai's desire to await the outcome of April's elections was unworkable.
"No one is certain about outcomes," he said. "But the election is scheduled for April 5th. If there is a runoff, which is very likely, (that) means that it's extended for a couple months at best before a new president is elected. Now you're well into mid-2014. So there will be at some point here a cutoff point."
While Hagel said he wasn't "prepared to give a date on that" cutoff point, he pointed to a scheduled conference of NATO defense ministers in late February as a key date.
"Some answer's going to be required at that NATO ministerial" meeting," Hagel said.