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Hagel given assurances on Afghan security deal

KABUL, Afghanistan – Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel said Saturday that Afghanistan’s defense minister reassured him that a security agreement with the U.S. will be signed in a timely manner.

Hagel also said he doesn’t think more U.S. pressure would be helpful in trying to persuade Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign the agreement.

The U.S. defense secretary had no plans to meet with Karzai during his stopover and it was not immediately clear what impact the visit could have on the standoff.

Hagel spoke to reporters after meeting with Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi.

Karzai tentatively has endorsed the agreement and a council of tribal elders, the Loya Jirga, has said it should be signed by the end of the year, as the U.S. has demanded.

Karzai says he wants his successor to decide after Afghanistan’s April elections. The president has stood his ground in the face of unrelenting pressure from diplomatic and defense officials.

The deal would allow U.S. troops to stay in the country 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.

Joining Hagel at a briefing, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, said he will keep planning for a post-2014 force. But, Dunford said, if the long-delayed deal is not signed before January, he will have to start planning for other options.

Dunford said he was more concerned about the psychological effect of Karzai’s failure to sign the agreement. The general said uncertainty about the future presence of coalition forces is causing a loss of confidence in Afghanistan, and said he has seen real estate prices go down and signs of “hedging behavior.”

Washington and NATO officials say they want a quick decision on the bilateral security agreement. Military leaders have said they need time to plan and coordinate with allies for the post-2014 mission, which could involve about 8,000 U.S. forces and 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.

During his visit, Hagel also plans to go around the country to see coalition service members.

This past week, U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Washington that the White House had not instructed him to plan for an option that would leave no U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014. But he cautioned that it is a possibility, given the current impasse.

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

During his March visit, there were 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.