There must have been moments this past weekend when Chuck Hagel wondered why he ever wanted the job of secretary of defense and why he put up with so much abuse from his former Senate colleagues to get it.
His first visit as Pentagon chief was a meeting over the weekend with Afghanistan's mercurial president, Hamid Karzai, the official whose help we most need if we are to bring our longest-running war to something like a successful conclusion.
Karzai is either crazy or crazy like a fox. There is evidence to support either proposition. Hagel probably leaned to the former explanation after Karzai went on television to elaborate on two suicide bombings timed to coincide with the American's visit.
The bombings, which killed at least 19 people, were done "at the service of America," which Karzai said was in daily contact and collusion with the Taliban, the idea being that the U.S. wanted to frighten Afghanistan to allow large numbers of American and NATO troops to stay on after their scheduled 2014 departure.
Karzai might have been grandstanding for local political consumption; at worst, he might really believe that crazy nonsense. More likely, however, is that he is trying to throw the untested Hagel off his stride in advance of serious negotiations. A scheduled joint press conference was canceled — out of security considerations, if you believe U.S. officials; out of pique, if you believe Karzai's people.
The Afghan military and police are to take over full responsibility for the security of their country this summer. Foreign combat troops are to start leaving this year. The United States wants to leave behind a residual force of 8,000 to 12,000 U.S. and NATO troops beyond 2014 to act as advisers and trainers and to conduct special operations. It would be a deal Karzai would be wise to take, not only for his own sake but for whoever follows him in elections set for next year.
Karzai has knowingly set a list of conditions for the residual force that Hagel would find hard to accept — the Afghan government would specify where they would be based and in what numbers, have veto power over their operations and — here is the real deal-breaker — the troops would be subject to Afghan law. A similar demand by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is why there are no U.S. troops in Iraq.
Hagel's maiden trip was far from a success, but at least he now knows what he's facing.
There was one bright note. U.S. delegations traditionally stop in Germany to visit wounded U.S. combat troops. This time there were none to visit.