By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
KABUL, Afghanistan, March 8, 2013 – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel landed here today on his first trip as the Defense Department’s leader to thank U.S. troops and to see for himself “where we are in Afghanistan.”
“I think it’s always important, when new leadership comes into any office in our national security organization, that we recognize the people who make it all possible and who are the ones on the front line,” he said to reporters traveling with him during the flight.
The new secretary’s last trip to Afghanistan was in the summer of 2008, he noted, along with then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama. Hagel said he also was a member of the first congressional delegation to visit the country in January 2002.
“I need to better understand what’s going on there,” the secretary said. “I need to talk to, listen to, get a good sense from our commanders on the ground.”
Hagel said he’s interested in seeing for himself, and discussing with Afghan and NATO International Security Assistance Force partners, “where the Afghans are in some of their capabilities.” He added that he has spoken by telephone this week with both Afghan Defense Minister Bismullah Khan Mohammadi and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who recently returned from a visit to Afghanistan.
The secretary said he looks forward to meeting with Mohammadi during his visit, and to talking with senior ISAF leaders, including Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., who took over command of the coalition force from Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen on Feb. 10.
Hagel said he also looks forward to getting reacquainted with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whom he first met in 2002.
The secretary said that as the alliance prepares for the final stage of transitioning to Afghan security lead in their own country, there are “a lot of big issues and challenge ahead.”
“That transition has to be done right; it has to be done in partnership with the Afghans [and] with our allies,” he said. “Our country -- as well as Afghanistan, the region and our allies -- have a lot at stake here. Our continued focus and energy and attention on Afghanistan is going to be very important.”
With some 66,000 U.S. service members still at war in a combat zone, Hagel said, “I don’t minimize or marginalize anything.” While discussions are ongoing among Afghan, U.S. and NATO member governments, he said, the question of ISAF troop numbers and mission beyond 2014 remains open.
As NATO’s combat mission in Afghanistan draws to a close, the secretary said, it’s important to manage the transition so the Afghan people have the best possible chance at a secure future.
“I think we all have invested an awful lot here in this effort, especially the men and women who made tremendous sacrifices from our country, and their families,” he said. “I think we are transitioning in a way that gives the Afghan people a very hopeful future.”
Hagel said any follow-on mission for U.S. forces in Afghanistan after the transition is complete in 2014 will be far different from the lead combatant role they’ve played for 12 years.
The new mission, as the president has outlined, will be training, assistance and advice, he said. “What we’re working through … with the Afghan government is a bilateral agreement that will address some of these future issues,” he added. “Our role as we transition out is a totally different role.”
Responding to a reporter’s question on North Korea’s government, which reportedly has threatened to launch a nuclear strike against the United States, the secretary said “the United States of America and our allies are prepared to deal with any threat … that occurs in the world.”