Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke Wednesday about the United States’ anti-terrorism initiative in Afghanistan, addressing the drawdown plans revealed by President Obama Tuesday. In his first public comments about the drawdown, Secretary Hagel expressed his support for the president’s plan to maintain a limited presence after the end of the combat mission there this year.
Obama’s plan, which he outlined in a speech delivered at West Point, includes keeping 9,800 troops in Afghanistan after the end of this year to continue in the fight against terrorism and to train and prepare Afghan forces to secure and govern on their own. By the end of next year, half of those forces would leave, and the rest would follow by the end of 2016.
Hagel noted that it is still unclear how many of the troops remaining will be used in the counterterrorism mission. NATO and other international allies have yet to decide how many troops they will contribute to the efforts, but Hagel expects them to make their decisions in the next few weeks.
The secretary addressed a crowd of U.S. troops at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska about his 12-day trip to Europe and Asia, which will include a meeting with NATO defense ministers and a visit to Afghanistan. Hagel spoke to reporters traveling with him about the drawdown plans, stating that U.S. military commanders approve of the troop numbers, and they believe the forces to be adequate for training and advising the troops Afghanistan, as well as fighting terrorists. He intimated that Obama’s plans would be sufficient to bring Afghanistan to a self-sustaining level, keeping them from falling back into terrorist violence after U.S. troops leave.
Hagel admitted the Afghan forces were not at that level yet, but said “tremendous progress” has been made, and he is confident they will improve enough in the allotted time. He was adamant that the military and the president would stick to the withdrawal timeline, regardless of whether the situation deteriorates in the presence of a smaller U.S. force.
Some expressed concern that the smaller force would not be sufficient to do any more than keep the situation at its current state, but Hagel rejected this notion. He insisted that the military would just have to “do more” to assist the Afghans with building and strengthening their own forces. He reiterated that the U.S. military leaders involved are confident in the abilities of the troops that will remain overseas.
In his statement to the press, Hagel said the men and women who have served and are serving in “America’s longest war” should be proud of what they have accomplished, and that all Americans are thankful for their service and unending sacrifice. The secretary also recognized the U.S. and coalition forces commander in Afghanistan, Marine Corps General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., calling the general’s leadership “exceptional” and giving him credit for keeping the mission successful despite numerous obstacles.
Hagel noted that America had “enduring support” for the Afghan people, and promised they could be confident in the U.S. as an ally. The deal is still contingent on the next Afghan president, who will be required to sign a security agreement with the U.S. Both presidential candidates have stated they would sign.
Hagel noted when speaking about the drawdown plans for the mission in Afghanistan that he believes the U.S. will be living with terrorism for years, partly due to the fact that terrorist networks continue to become smarter and more globally interconnected. Still, Hagel stressed that the president made the plan “clear” to the military, and there are no expectations that the plans will change.
By Christina Jones