UPDATE: 11:15 p.m. CST: Afghan officials said an explosion occurred outside the Afghan defense ministry in Kabul on Saturday causing multiple casualties, as U.S. defense secretary Chuck Hagel was visiting the country.
Afghan police spokesman Hashmat Stanekzai says an apparent suicide attacker on a bicycle hit the main entrance to the defense ministry around 9 a.m. Kabul time.
Officials were still trying to determine the number of casualties.
Hagel was in a meeting at a coalition facility in Kabul, and defense officials said he was in a safe location and unharmed. Reporters traveling with Hagel were in a briefing when they heard the explosion and were moved to a lower floor of the same building.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
* * * * *
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived in Kabul Friday on his first international trip, a week after becoming the top Pentagon official, to prepare for what he called a “responsible transition” in the Afghan war.
“It was never the intention of the U.S. to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely,” Hagel told reporters traveling with him on a military plane. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan to help its people to “be free from terrorists and a government that was hostile,” Hagel said.
Now “it is the Afghan people who need to make -- and will make -- their own decisions about their future,” Hagel said. “We can help and we have helped, as have our allies, but there comes a time when that should be transitioned, that role we had.”
Hagel, who is making his fifth visit to Afghanistan, was last here in July 2008, when he was a Republican senator from Nebraska and was accompanied by Barack Obama, a Democratic senator from Illinois. In February 2008, Hagel traveled to Afghanistan with Democratic Senators Joseph Biden of Delaware and John Kerry of Massachusetts. Biden walked out of a dinner with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, throwing down his napkin in frustration, over the country's endemic corruption.
Now, Obama is president, Biden is vice president, Kerry is secretary of state, and Hagel as defense secretary will meet again with Karzai. The Afghan president's relations with the U.S. remain strained by disputes over issues from the still- pervasive corruption to control over coalition airstrikes that can leave civilian casualties.
Hagel also plans to meet with Afghan Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi and U.S. military officials including Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's International Security Assistance Force.
In a message to ISAF personnel today, Hagel said they have “a dangerous and difficult mission” as they move into a support role for Afghan forces.
“We are still at war, and many of you will continue to experience the ugly reality of combat and the heat of battle,” Hagel said. He said the goal of having “Afghans assume full responsibility for security by the end of 2014 is clear and achievable.”
The U.S. is preparing to withdraw about half of its 66,000 troops by this time next year, and Obama is weighing how many U.S. forces will remain starting in 2015.
Obama hasn't made a decision yet, Hagel said. Last month in Brussels, Hagel's predecessor, Leon Panetta, told his European counterparts that the U.S. is considering a total NATO force of about 8,000 to 12,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014.
That's far fewer than the number recommended by Marine Corps General James Mattis, the departing head of the U.S. Central Command, who told Congress this week that he favored a NATO force of 20,000, including 13,600 U.S. troops.
Obama will consult with NATO and Afghan officials to arrive at the right force to “carry out the mission that we are committed to carry out as we conduct this responsible transition,” Hagel said.
NATO also is considering a proposal to sustain Afghanistan's forces at 352,000 troops after 2016 to boost the confidence of the country's officials. That would reverse an earlier NATO plan to shrink Afghan forces to 228,500 after 2017.
The U.S. heavily subsidizes Afghanistan's military. While the U.S. spent about $11.2 billion on the Afghan National Security Forces in fiscal 2012, the Obama administration requested $5.75 billion for the current fiscal year, according to the Congressional Research Service.
As the U.S. and allies determine their future role in the South Asian nation, questions remain about the competence of Afghanistan's civilian government and the capability of its forces to meet insurgent threats within the country and from across the border in Pakistan, said Seth Jones, an Afghanistan analyst at the Rand Corporation, a policy research group based in Santa Monica, California.
Among the unresolved issues, he said, are “how serious is that threat, how connected is it to the U.S. homeland security and interest in the region.”
Hagel will focus largely on carrying out the strategy already laid down by Obama, which is based on withdrawing most U.S. forces, continuing some counterterrorism operations against remnants of al-Qaeda and assisting Afghans, Jones said.
“The challenge for Secretary Hagel is he's coming into a situation where the president has been looking into this issue for four years and so has Vice President Biden and they have firm views of the way ahead,” Jones said in a phone interview. “At this point, Hagel will be able to influence a few things on the margin, but his job is to execute the wishes of the commander in chief.”
While Hagel as a senator backed the resolution authorizing the war in Afghanistan in 2001, he has been critical of the surge under Obama in 2009 that sent additional U.S. troops into the country.
As NATO forces withdraw, there's a danger that ethnic divisions may flare up within Afghanistan's armed forces, said Jones, who previously served as an adviser to the U.S. Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan.
“I'd start to watch very closely whether you get fissures in the national army,” Jones said. In the south and east of Afghanistan, the Taliban may make a push to retake territory once NATO forces leave as well as turn Pashtuns, Tajiks and Uzbeks in the army against each other, Jones said. “I hope there's an honest discussion of the threat picture,” he said.
The focus of U.S. and NATO on the size of their forces and of the Afghan military fails to recognize that “security services are only instruments of a government,” Sarah Chayes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in a phone interview.
NATO is “ignoring the fact that the body they're attached to -- the Afghan government -- is repudiated by the population,” said Chayes, who has been a special adviser to the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and has lived in Afghanistan for most of the past decade.
The U.S. appears not to care about the aftermath of its withdrawal from Afghanistan, just as it didn't take into account the effect of withdrawing from Vietnam almost four decades ago, Chayes said.
“When we decided to leave Vietnam we didn't much care about what transpired after that,” Chayes said. “We didn't care much about the house of cards that came down after us.”