Hagel makes surprise visit to Afghanistan, gets assurances on security pact

KABUL, Afghanistan - U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel paid an unannounced visit to American forces in Afghanistan during which he met with the Afghan defense minister, who he said has reassured him that a security agreement with the U.S. will be signed in a timely manner.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has so far refused to sign the pact despite increasing pressure from diplomatic and defense officials.

Hagel met with Bismillah Khan Mohammadi in Kabul, the Afghan capital. He has no plans to meet with Karzai.

Hagel also told reporters that he doesn't think that more U.S. pressure would be helpful in trying to persuade Karzai to sign the agreement.

Karzai has tentatively endorsed the agreement and a council of tribal elders has said it should be signed by the end of the year, as the U.S. has demanded. However, Karzai says he wants his successor to decide after the April 5 elections. Washington and NATO officials say they want a quick decision on the bilateral security agreement, which allows U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan after 2014 to do training and some counterterrorism missions.

Without a signed agreement, all U.S. troops would leave at the end of next year, along with all foreign forces. Military leaders have said they need time to plan and coordinate with allies for the post-2014 mission, which could involve around 8,000 U.S. forces and another 6,000 allies troops.

Karzai has said he won't sign any agreement that allows continued raids on Afghan homes. Under Afghan law, any agreement must be signed twice - once to get it to parliament and, if approved, then by Karzai alone in his capacity as president.

Earlier this week, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Washington that the White House has not instructed him to plan for a so-called "zero option" that would leave no U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014. But he cautioned that it is a possibility, given the ongoing impasse.

This is Hagel's second trip to Afghanistan since he began as defense chief early this year.

His visit in March was marked by drama. His less than three day stay was riddled with bombings, security threats, political gridlock and wild accusations from Karzai.

A suicide bomber targeted the Afghan defense ministry a day before Hagel was scheduled to go there, and the Pentagon chief had to cancel a planned news conference because of a security threat.

In addition, Karzai accused the U.S. of colluding with the Taliban. The comments drew sharp rebukes from other U.S. officials as days passed.