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Pentagon chief Hagel makes 1st trip to Afghanistan

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 8, 2013 at 1:25 pm •  Published: March 8, 2013

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.

And, 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 transitioned."

And the transition, he said, is happening in a way that gives the Afghan people "a very hopeful future."

The 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.

Another 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.