By Phil Stewart
KABUL (Reuters) - It was a harrowing international debut for Chuck Hagel, whose first trip to Afghanistan as defense secretary went dramatically off-script and challenged the American narrative about the 11-year-old war.
His first full day in Afghanistan began with the sound of suicide bomb attack about a mile away from his morning meetings at a NATO facility. But the real damage came the next day when Washington's mercurial ally in the war, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, accused the United States of colluding with the Taliban hours before the two met.
Put in an awkward position, Hagel appeared cautious and at pains to avoid sharply criticizing the Afghan leader in public, even as he firmly disputed Karzai's assertions.
In private, Hagel requested and had a private one-on-one meeting with Karzai where he was "firm and direct" with the Afghan president, a U.S. official said. Hagel declined to provide reporters with details of the private exchange.
Asked about Karzai's comments, White House national security advisor Tom Donilon cited "difficult questions" surrounding the transfer of security control from the NATO-led force to Afghan soldiers.
"We've had challenges before. We've continued to work with President Karzai. But we're I think on track to meet the goals we've set for ourselves," Donilon said in response to a question after a speech in New York.
Having weathered a brutal confirmation battle last month, Hagel, a former two-term Republican senator, at one point even appeared to publicly commiserate with Karzai.
"I was once a politician," Hagel, 66, told reporters traveling with him. "So I can understand the kind of pressures - especially leaders of countries - are always under."
Hagel's more measured approach was on display as well on Saturday, when he was asked about his initial reaction to the sound of the blast from a suicide bombing at Afghanistan's nearby defense ministry, which killed nine civilians.
"We're in a war zone. I've been in war ... So (we) shouldn't be surprised when a bomb goes off or there's an explosion," he said.
There are good reasons for Hagel to be cautious. A perceived gaffe or damaging misstep after such an acrimonious confirmation process could have given Republican critics more ammunition after they questioned his war judgment. It could also complicate his efforts to wind down the war in Afghanistan.
But the Taliban bombings and Karzai's accusations were a jarring contrast to Hagel's optimistic, if tempered, comments about the war effort, which he said was "on the right path."
"You look over the past 11 years, it's pretty dramatic, what's happened in this country," Hagel told reporters on Sunday. "Yes, a ways to go. Yes, challenges. Yes, issues. Yes, differences. But I don't think any of these are challenges that we can't work our way through."
The trip failed to answer the big questions about Hagel's thinking so far about America's evolving exit strategy from the unpopular conflict, including an upcoming decision on the size of the residual force the United States will leave behind in Afghanistan once the NATO mission ends in 2014.
A senior defense official said Hagel was looking forward to working with other senior policy makers in Washington to "deepen our engagement with Afghan leaders, some of whom clearly have issues they want resolved." Hagel's priority, the official said, would be striking a security agreement with Afghanistan.
But it was concerns over security that forced Hagel and Karzai to cancel a joint news conference, U.S. officials said. The venue for Hagel's meeting with the Afghan defense and interior ministers was also changed.
America's first Vietnam war veteran to become defense secretary, Hagel appeared most at ease when talking to troops during a stop at a base in the eastern city of Jalalabad.
He cracked jokes and pinned Purple Heart medals on two soldiers wounded in battle. Hagel has two of the medals himself and still carries bits of shrapnel in his chest from that conflict.
Hagel, a former infantryman, joked to an Army staff sergeant that there was a time when "I was scared to death of a staff sergeant." The soldier responded: "You should be, sir." Hagel laughed.
During his trip back to the United States on Monday, Hagel stopped off in Ramstein, Germany, where he had planned to visit with wounded troops and see an Air Force general. There were no U.S. service members being treated for combat injuries at the time.
But as he landed news broke about an insider attack in Afghanistan when a person in an Afghan military uniform turned his weapon on troops at a joint base in the restive east of the country, killing two U.S. soldiers, and five Afghan army and police personnel.
Throughout his trip, Hagel assured troops he would do whatever he could to help them, even in the face of across-the-board budget cuts hitting the Pentagon and other U.S. agencies.
"I want you to also know that I will always do my best for you, for your families, our country," Hagel told the soldiers in Jalalabad. "I will always put our men and women in uniform first and do everything I can to ensure your safety or success and everything that you're entitled to."
(Editing By Warren Strobel and Christopher Wilson)