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Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel returned to the Middle East today, after a weekend tour of Afghanistan and a stop in Pakistan. Hagel's visit to Afghanistan was overshadowed by continuing difficulties with President Hamid Karzai. Afghanistan has not yet agreed to terms that would allow U.S. forces to stay there beyond 2014. As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, Afghanistan is not the only country where the U.S. faces questions about its military staying power.
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: As soon as Hagel's plane landed in Kabul, he faced one question - aren't you going to meet with President Hamid Karzai? After all, the U.S. has been waiting for weeks for Karzai to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement, a BSA, that would govern the Western role in that country after 2014. But Hagel said nope.
SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: I never asked for a meeting with President Karzai. That was not the purpose of my trip. Never suggested it in anyway. I never received an invitation to meet with him.
ABRAMSON: It seems odd that a top U.S. official would come all this way and not try to break the impasse over the BSA. But this is far from the first time Karzai has played political games with his American backers. So, rather than reward Karzai for what one official called bad behavior, Hagel stressed that other Afghan officials want and expect the U.S. to stay.
HAGEL: The ministers all believe that it is in the interests of Afghanistan to have that BSA signed and signed in a very timely manner.
ABRAMSON: And that's the U.S. position. If we believe it, it will come to pass. The question is how long military planners can wait. Commanders on the ground are already withdrawing U.S. and NATO forces. By February, fewer than 35,000 U.S. troops will remain. But should those still here plan for a continuing presence of 10,000 or so, or should they plan for the worst, the zero option? General Joe Dunford, head of all coalition forces, says he's still operating off the last instructions that he received.
GENERAL JOSEPH DUNFORD: Which is that that we'll have a train, advise, assist mission in 2015, and that's the only plan that we have right now.
ABRAMSON: Dunford is worried that any other narrative will embolden the Taliban, encouraging the enemy to disrupt key elections scheduled for April here. We are not going anywhere is the U.S. message. And that's a similar story to what Hagel is telling allies in the Arabian Gulf. They're worried that a U.S. diplomatic agreement to ease sanctions on Iran shows a flagging U.S. commitment to their part of the world. That's why Hagel is visiting U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar on this trip. And it's why he went to Bahrain, where he acknowledged local concerns.
HAGEL: Questions have been raised about America's intentions, America's strategy and America's commitment to this region.
ABRAMSON: Hagel told Gulf countries gathered in Bahrain, don't worry. Just this year, the Pentagon sold regional allies $10 billion in weapons. In Bahrain, Hagel said the U.S. would also enhance future cooperation with Gulf states on missile defense.
HAGEL: Our success will continue to hinge on America's military power and the credibility of our assurances to our allies and partners in the Middle East that we will use it.
ABRAMSON: Hagel talked tough, promising that the diplomatic initiative with Iran is not a sign of weakness. That leads to another question that dogged Hagel on this trip. Can the financially weakened U.S. military really be as tough as it talks? Larry Abramson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.