Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was greeted on his first visit to Afghanistan since taking office by suicide bombs, threats and Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s accusation that the U.S. is colluding with the Taliban.

As Hagel prepared to leave a U.S. military compound in Kabul on March 9, a Taliban suicide bomber blew himself up outside the Ministry of Defense, and another suicide bomb detonated in Khost province. Yesterday, Karzai said that those attacks, which together killed 19 people, aided U.S. goals. A joint Hagel-Karzai press conference at the presidential palace was canceled for what Pentagon officials said were security reasons.

While the Taliban said the attacks were aimed at sending a message to Hagel that the insurgents remain a powerful force, Karzai said in a speech yesterday that the U.S. is holding peace talks with the radical Islamists and the bombs were in the “service of America.”

“On the surface and to this outside observer, it appears that Karzai has gone way off the reservation, perhaps more so than he has in the past,” said David Maxwell, a retired U.S. Army colonel who’s associate director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. “I cannot see how we could work with such an apparently delusional leader much longer, but unfortunately I do not know if we have any other good options.”

Karzai’s allegations and the suicide attacks gave the new defense secretary, who took office March 1, a close-up view of the military and political obstacles the Obama administration faces as it tries to extricate the U.S. from a war it’s been waging for more than 11 years, train Afghan forces to take over the fight, root out official corruption, curb opium trafficking, and develop the Afghan economy.

Withdrawing Troops

President Barack Obama has ordered the withdrawal of 34,000 of about 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan by February. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last month that the drawdown will occur in stages, with the force dropping to 50,000 by November, after the summer fighting season, and then to 34,000 by February. More troops will come home after Afghan elections planned for early 2014, Panetta said.

“When you spend 48 hours in Afghanistan or any part of the world that’s still dangerous, you again recognize the complications that exist every day in these parts of the world,” Hagel, a combat veteran of Vietnam, told reporters at a U.S. military base after he met with Karzai yesterday. Asked about Karzai’s accusation that the U.S. was colluding with the Taliban, Hagel said he “spoke clearly and directly” to Karzai on the matter. Hagel didn’t elaborate.

Earlier yesterday, Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s International Security Assistance Force, said the Afghan president’s comments were “categorically false.”

Shed Blood

“We have fought too hard over the past 12 years, we have shed too much blood over the past 12 years, we have done too much to help the Afghan security forces grow over the last 12 years,” Dunford told reporters. “To ever think that violence or instability would be to our advantage, that’s clearly not where we are right now.”

Hagel said he’d told Karzai that “it was not true that the United States was unilaterally working with the Taliban trying to negotiate anything. The fact is any prospect for peace or political settlements, that has to be led by the Afghans. Obviously the U.S. will support efforts, if they’re led by the Afghans, to come to some possible resolution if that eventually evolves.”

In recent weeks, the U.S. and Afghanistan also have disagreed about the role of U.S. special operations forces and the transfer of Afghan prisoners to Afghan control.

Bagram Prison

A planned transfer of prisoners being held by the U.S. at Bagram air base outside Kabul to Afghan control over the weekend was delayed because the two sides couldn’t agree on the terms of the handover. Karzai had said he would release some of the prisoners.

“What I need to be satisfied as a commander is that there’s a plan in place to ensure that those people who need to be off the battlefield are in fact detained,” said Dunford, who became the top NATO military officer last month.

“We need the latitude to finish the work here in the next 22 months,” he said.

Friction has increased between the two counties because Afghans are increasingly assuming responsibility for running their country and are asserting authority, Dunford said.

“We’re balancing increased Afghan sovereignty with continued presence of coalition forces who exercise a piece of that sovereignty because we are in the middle of a conflict,” Dunford said.

Expelling Commandos

Karzai issued an order last month expelling U.S. commandos from Wardak province, near Kabul, alleging that the soldiers were involved in atrocities. Dunford said the two sides were discussing that order to ensure that Afghan forces are ready to assume authority for the province, which is a gateway to Kabul.

Asked if Karzai’s latest outbursts against the U.S. are undermining trust, Dunford said the Afghan president may be under political pressure to send a message to his constituents.

“Karzai has both an internal and external audience, and he knows far better than I how to message the internal and external audiences,” Dunford said.

“If you look at Karzai’s record over the past decade, he has periodically made statements similar to this most recent one,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow who specializes in national security policy in the Middle East and South Asia at the Center for American Progress, a Washington policy institute. “He often does this at times when he wants to signal his independence and his country’s sovereignty.”

‘Unhinged From Reality’

“The statements are sometimes unhinged from reality, and they quite often are aimed at playing to various domestic constituencies in his country,” Katulis said in an e-mail. “They do little to maintain and build trust and credibility with the United States and its NATO allies, however.”

A key test of the Afghan National Security Forces’ ability to deal independently with insurgents will come this summer when the forces will lead the battle for the first time, with the U.S. providing only some advice and support, Dunford said.

The U.S. and Afghanistan are negotiating a bilateral security agreement to ensure that any U.S. military personnel stationed in Afghanistan after 2014 remain immune from Afghan laws.