WASHINGTON— Reports that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been holding secret peace talks with Taliban officials led to high-level meetings in Washington Tuesday. U.S. officials are again calling on the Afghan leader to sign an agreement to allow U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond this year.
President Barack Obama met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other military commanders at the White House Tuesday. They were expected to discuss a report, in The New York Times, that Karzai met with Taliban officials in Dubai three weeks ago, without consulting the United States.
The Pentagon is not confirming the reports, according to Defense Department spokesman U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren.
“We've long said that the path to peace here is political and diplomatic and not military and I believe that we've long said that Afghans speaking to Afghans are what's going to bring about peace and stability in Afghanistan,” he said.
The Senate Armed Services Committee also met Tuesday, behind closed doors, to discuss the issue.
Republican Senator John McCain said the Obama administration's announcement that it would conclude the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan by the end of this year was likely a factor in Karzai's reported decision to negotiate with the Taliban. McCain said he had been told that the White House was considering withdrawing all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by 2017, when Obama leaves office.
"President Karzai is paranoid and irrational; but, like most people with paranoia, there is a basis for that," he said. "And when he reads that the United States is planning on having everybody out by 2017, then he makes accommodations, such as trying to negotiate with the Taliban. That is completely understandable."
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama has not decided on the post-2014 U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. He said that decision cannot be made until the Afghan leader signs a bilateral security agreement.
He said, "I can tell you that as each day passes and we move further into this calendar year, it becomes more imperative that the Afghan government sign the agreement that was negotiated in good faith, so that NATO and the United States can make plans for a post-2014 troop presence. Absent a signed BSA, there will be no and can be no U.S. troops beyond 2014."
The U.S. has been calling on Karzai to sign the agreement soon, to give NATO time to prepare for a post-combat role for its troops in Afghanistan.
U.S.-Afghan relations have been strained in recent months, and Karzai announced in November that he would not sign a bilateral security agreement with the U.S. until after Afghanistan's April 5 presidential election.
The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Democrat Carl Levin, said he is more interested in whether Afghanistan's next president will sign the agreement.
"My advice on this one is to simply not count on Karzai signing a bilateral security agreement, because it's obvious that he's either not or unlikely," he said. "But you don't need him to, because it's the next president, who will be more reliable than Karzai, in any event."
The Afghan leader has also released some Taliban militants from prison and accused the U.S. of war crimes.