Top defense officials categorically deny claims by Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the United States is working unilaterally with the Taliban, and that the militant political group secretly wants foreign powers to remain in the country after 12 years of war.
Newly minted Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been in Afghanistan meeting with leaders and greeting coalition troops. He said on Sunday he discussed Karzai's most recent comments during a meeting with him this weekend.
Karzai's statements follow other criticisms of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan at a time when the White House is trying to shift the rhetoric to the American troop drawdown in 2014.
"I told the president it was not true that the United States was working unilaterally with the Taliban and trying to negotiate anything," Hagel told reporters in Kabul. "The fact is, any prospect for peace or political settlements—that has to be led by the Afghans. That has to come from the Afghan side."
"I know these are difficult issues for President Karzai and the Afghan people," Hagel added. "And I was once a politician, so I can understand the kind of pressures that especially leaders of countries are always under."
The Taliban claimed responsibility for bomb attacks in Kabul and in Khost Province on March 9 that killed at least 19 people during Hagel's visit, including nine civilians, eight children, and two policeman. A U.S. contractor and four soldiers were injured. Karzai said afterward that the attack showed the Taliban "are serving foreigners and are not against the foreigner. These bombings show that Taliban want longer presence of foreigners, not their departure from Afghanistan."
Karzai also claimed the United States and Taliban representatives host daily talks.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, who inherited command of the coalition forces in February, said Karzai had never repeated these claims while speaking to him.
"I don't know what caused him to say that today," he told reporters in Kabul.
"All I can do is speak for the coalition to tell you that it's categorically false," he said.
"We have no reason to be supporting instability in Afghanistan. And all that we have been about over the past 12 years is to bring peace and stability to the Afghan people so that they can take advantage of the decade of opportunity that will follow 2014. That's what we're all about."
Karzai's most recent comments follow criticisms of U.S. special forces in Wardak Province, immediately west of Kabul and a key region for access to the capital. He echoed claims from local residents of the mistreatment of detainees and called for the complete withdrawal of the commandos within two weeks.
The outgoing commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees Afghanistan, told a Senate panel March 5 that the Pentagon was still negotiating with Afghans to reach a solution.
"That issue is being worked right now. It is not operant right now," said Marine Gen. James Mattis, who is expected to retire in March. "Obviously we would be reluctant to see our forces not able to operate there right now."
"It's not just reversing [Karzai's order]," Mattis said. "It's crafting how best we operate in Wardak Province."