Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived in
Afghanistan Friday for his first visit as Pentagon chief, saying that
there are plenty of challenges ahead as NATO hands over the country's
security to the Afghans.
"We are still at war," Hagel said,
warning the U.S. and its allies to remain focused on the mission while
noting that the U.S. never intended to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely.
transition has to be done right, it has to be done in partnership with
the Afghans, with our allies," said Hagel, who took over the Pentagon
job a little more than a week ago. "Our country as well as Afghanistan,
the region, and the allies have a lot at stake here. And our continued
focus and energy and attention on Afghanistan is going to be very
He said it was vital to remember why the U.S. invaded
Afghanistan in the days after the 9/11 attacks, including the need to
rid the country of terrorists and a hostile government.
reporters traveling with him that he plans to talk to Afghan President
Hamid Karzai about the recent order expelling U.S. commandos from Wardak
Province. He would not say what his message to Karzai might be.
ordered that U.S. special operations forces leave within two weeks
because of allegations that Afghans working with the commandos were
involved in abusive behavior and torture.
The order comes despite
worries that it could leave the region more vulnerable to al-Qaeda and
other insurgents. U.S. officials have said they have seen no evidence
that American forces were involved in the abuse of Afghan civilians.
is slated to meet with U.S. commanders and Afghan leaders and plans to
make his first detailed assessment of the increasingly unpopular war.
unannounced visit comes at a turning point in the conflict, as U.S. and
NATO allies set their timetable for the withdrawal of combat troops and
pressure mounts on the U.S.-led effort to train the Afghan forces.
Hagel must manage the transition as the U.S. steps up what will be a
difficult and expensive extraction of equipment from the country even as
Congress slashes billions of dollars from the defense budget.
need to better understand what's going on there," Hagel told reporters
during the flight to Kabul. He said he wants an assessment on the
progress of the Afghan forces as they prepare to take over the security
of their own country.
Hagel traveled to Afghanistan four times
during his two terms as senator for Nebraska, including once in 2002
shortly after the war began, in 2006 and twice in 2008. His final two
visits were in 2008, once in February with then Sens. Joe Biden and John
Kerry - now the vice president and secretary of state, and in July with
then-Sen. Barack Obama.
While Hagel initially supported the
Afghanistan war when he was senator, his enthusiasm diminished as the
conflict dragged on for more than 10 years. He pointedly observed that
militaries are "built to fight and win wars, not bind together failing
nations." And in a radio interview this year, he acknowledged the
nation's growing weariness with the war that has claimed the lives of
more than 2,000 U.S. troops and wounded another 18,000, saying that "the
American people want out" of Afghanistan.
His review of the war
will likely be colored in part by his own military service. Hagel is the
first Vietnam veteran to lead the Pentagon, and the first man to become
defense secretary after serving only in the enlisted ranks. All the
other secretaries with military service eventually served as officers.
Hagel served in Vietnam alongside his brother, was wounded twice and was
awarded two Purple Hearts.
There are currently about 66,000 U.S.
troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of about 100,000 in 2010. The
U.S. troop total is scheduled to drop to about 32,000 by early next
year, with the bulk of the decline coming over the winter months.
while there has been no final decision on the size of the post-2014
force, U.S. and NATO leaders say they are considering a range between
8,000 and 12,000. The size of that residual force is sharply smaller
than what the top U.S. commander in the Middle East recommended. Gen.
James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed
Services Committee earlier this week that his personal recommendation
was for a U.S. force of 13,600, with the expectation that NATO allies
would contribute another 6,000 to 7,000.
Hagel would not say what
his assessment of the final post-2014 numbers is yet. But, he added
that, "it is the Afghan people who need to make, and will make, their
own decisions about their future. We can help. We have helped, as well
as our allies. But there does come a time when that should be
And the transition, he said, is happening in a way that give the Afghan people "a very hopeful future."
U.S. is currently in the early stages of negotiating a bilateral
security agreement with Kabul that would set the legal parameters for
America's continued military and diplomatic involvement with the nation.
source of anxiety among the allies is Afghanistan's 2014 presidential
election; Karzai, who has led the country since U.S. forces toppled the
Taliban in late 2001, is not running and there is no obvious successor.