U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel began his first international trip as Pentagon chief in Kabul as suicide bombings today overshadowed preparations for what he called a “responsible transition” in the Afghan war.
A suicide bomber struck in Kabul outside the Afghan Defense Ministry as Hagel met with U.S. officials at a military base in the capital. NATO's International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, confirmed the attack. Another suicide bomber hit a police checkpoint in Khost in eastern Afghanistan and in all 18 people were killed in both assaults, according to the Associated Press.
“We are in a war zone, so we shouldn't be surprised when a bomb goes off,” Hagel told reporters when asked about his reaction to the explosion in Kabul, after he visited U.S. troops in Jalalabad.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the Kabul bombing, saying it was meant to send a signal to the U.S. defense chief, according to the AP. “This attack was a message to him,” Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in an email to reporters, the AP reported.
Hagel arrived in Kabul yesterday on his fifth trip to Afghanistan and his first journey abroad since taking office as defense minister. “It was never the intention of the U.S. to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely,” he told reporters traveling with him on a military plane. The U.S. invaded to help Afghans “be free from terrorists and a government that was hostile,” and now it's time for them to make “their own decisions about their future,” he said.
The U.S. military failed to complete a full transfer of the Bagram prison to Afghan control today as had been previously planned. In September, the two sides agreed to let Afghanistan take full control of the prison, which has been one of President Hamid Karzai's key demands.
Although Hagel was not scheduled to participate in the planned ceremony, he was informed of the delay while he was en route to Kabul, a U.S. defense official told reporters. The Pentagon was surprised by the delay, which the official said was because of technical issues. He did not elaborate.
Hagel flew today to Bagram outside of Kabul to meet with officials from the U.S. Special Operations Command and Regional Command-East and later to Jalalabad, where he awarded Purple Heart medals to two U.S. soldiers who were wounded in war. Hagel, a former soldier, received two Purple Heart medals after being injured during the Vietnam War.
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 ISAF.
In a message to ISAF personnel yesterday, 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.
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.