After surviving a combative Senate confirmation battle, he jumped on a military plane to Afghanistan and was hit with the jarring difficulties of shutting down a war in a country still wracked by violence and political volatility.
His stay of less than three days in the warzone was riddled with bombings, security threats, political gridlock and wild accusations from an Afghan president bent on securing his own legacy and determined to move his fragile, war-torn country toward stability and self-governance.
Hagel left Afghanistan Monday morning with no real victories to tout, no solutions nailed down or hurdles overcome. Instead, during brief public comments shortly after he met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai Sunday night, Hagel steadfastly avoided any direct talk of the escalating problems. Instead, the twice-wounded Vietnam veteran and former U.S. senator spoke broadly of the challenges of war and the complications of politics.
“Sometimes I think we can get bogged down in the day-to-day evaluations of the minute, of the week, of the month,” Hagel told reporters once he was back inside the fortified walls of Camp Eggers, the base in Kabul. “Those are all metrics, those are all good guideposts, but we’ve got to keep in mind the larger context of where we’ve been; and what we’ve accomplished and where we’re going with the big issues still hanging out there.”
An early supporter of the war while in the U.S. Senate, Hagel later became more disillusioned with the conflict, opposing the surge of troops sent to quell the escalating violence. More recently he has warned that Americans want the U.S. to get out of the war that has killed more than 2,000 U.S. troops and that the Obama administration wants to wind down.
Hagel must he oversee the withdrawal of 34,000 troops and thousands of containers of equipment over the next year or so. And he must do it as the Afghans throw roadblocks in his path and a stubborn insurgency rattles the nascent government with dramatic attacks and the promise of an early start to the spring fighting season.
“It’s complicated,” Hagel repeatedly said as reporters pressed him on the challenges. He appeared at times to try and walk a delicate political line, forced to acknowledge the tensions with Karzai but seemingly determined not to fuel them.
In recent days, disagreements stalled efforts to turn a detention facility over to the Afghans and U.S. forces faced mounting Afghan restrictions on their combat and training operations. A suicide bomber targeted the Afghan defense ministry a day before Hagel was scheduled to go there, and on Sunday he cancelled his news conference because officials said they learned of a security threat.
In addition, Karzai accused the U.S. of colluding with the Taliban.
In the latest broadside, Karzai said that two suicide bombings that killed 19 people on Saturday —one outside the Afghan Defense Ministry, the other near a police checkpoint in eastern Khost province — show that the Taliban is conducting attacks to show that international forces will be needed after their combat mission ends in 2014.
“The explosions in Kabul and Khost yesterday showed that they are at the service of America and at the service of this phrase: 2014. They are trying to frighten us into thinking that if the foreigners are not in Afghanistan, we would be facing these sorts of incidents,” he said.
Hagel said that during his meeting and inaugural dinner as defense chief at Karzai’s palace, he spoke “clearly and directly” to the Afghan president about the ongoing problems. He would not say if Karzai leveled the same charges of U.S. and Taliban collusion directly to his face during the meeting.
Stunned U.S. officials said they didn’t know if the remarks were targeted to come as Hagel made his first visit to the country. And they seesawed between expressions of frustration to simply dismissing the charges as unfortunate political pandering. What most agreed on, however, is that such disputes will likely continue to come up and further complicate Hagel’s effort to end the war.
Still, there were sparks of optimism.
Both Hagel and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, insisted that the Afghan military leaders are committed to taking over security of their own country and are on target to make that transition later this summer.
There are about 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and combat forces are to fully withdraw by the end of next year. U.S. officials have said they are considering leaving a total U.S. and coalition force of between 8,000 and 12,000 in the country after 2014, but President Barack Obama has yet to make a final decision.
Officials have said that the residual force would continue to advise and assist the Afghan security forces and conduct counterterrorism operations.
“When you spend 48 hours in Afghanistan or any part of the world that’s still dangerous, you again recognize the complications that exist every day in these parts of the world,” Hagel told reporters.
One of the realities of the security transition to Afghan forces — and one of the more positive aspects for Americans — was evident as Hagel landed in Germany to transfer from the rugged C-17 military plane to his E-4B command aircraft.
Normally when defense leaders and military commanders land at Ramstein Air Base, they travel the short distance to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center to visit the war wounded. On Monday, however, there were no combat wounded U.S. service members staying at the hospital.
Since Jan. 1, five U.S. personnel have been killed and about 60 wounded in Afghanistan. That included two Americans who died Monday after a police officer opened fire inside a police headquarters in Wardak province.
In contrast, Dunford said 55 Afghans have been killed in combat in the past week, and 73 were killed the previous week. Since mid-December nearly 300 Afghan security forces have died in action.
As a result, Dunford said that commanders have been working on ways to help the Afghans reduce their losses, including efforts to help them counter roadside bombs.
“The Afghans are in the lead, the Afghans are bearing the brunt of the fighting in Afghanistan right now,” Dunford told reporters. “The unfortunate casualty statistics reflect that.”