KABUL, Afghanistan, December 09, 2013 – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spent a full day today with two sets of people he seldom sees in Washington: deployed U.S. troops and Afghan military leaders.
Hagel left Afghanistan’s capital this morning and flew south — first to NATO International Security Assistance Force’s Regional Command Southwest, which includes Helmand and Nimroz provinces, and then to Regional Command South, which encompasses Kandahar, Zabul, Uruzgan and Daykundi provinces.
Hagel brought holiday wishes, thanks and reassurance to troops at both Camp Bastion in Helmand and at Kandahar Airfield. Both places, he noted in his talks, have consistently been combat hot spots during the long war here.
“I want you to know how much President Obama and our country appreciate what you’re doing,” he said in Helmand. “I know more than occasionally you wonder if anybody’s paying attention, whether anybody cares — but we do. Our country cares. We do know what you’re doing, and we appreciate it very much.”
Hagel told the men and women in uniform standing in ranks before him in both hard-frame tents — the “Camp Leatherneck town hall” in Helmand and the “fest tent” in Kandahar — that they’ve made an astounding difference to Afghanistan’s fight against terrorism.
Warm weather and sandy terrain disguise the season down south, but both of the expansive, yet austere, bases the secretary visited today were decked with Christmas trees, lights and other holiday decorations amid the plywood and aluminum buildings that mark a U.S. outpost.
“I know this is a tough time, especially [with] the holiday season coming,” the secretary said. “You’re away from your families and your home, so I know it’s a particularly difficult. I want you to tell your families how much we appreciate their work, their sacrifices, and their service, as they support you.”
During both visits, service members asked Hagel about the military’s budget. He responded that he sees some hope for progress from Congress.
“There is some speculation in Washington that there may be a budget deal … when both the House and the Senate come back into session, which may well give us two years of budget certainty and reduce the current level of sequestration,” he said in Helmand.
The secretary noted that currently, the military faces a second sequestration cut of more than $50 billion this fiscal year, following a $32 billion reduction previously programmed into this fiscal year’s allocation.
No matter the cuts the military faces next fiscal year and beyond, Hagel said, the department’s leaders will prioritize people, readiness and combat power. “You will get everything you need to do your mission,” he said.
In Kandahar, he told his audience they and all of America’s forces are the most talented and motivated, best-educated, best-trained, best-equipped and best-led military the world has ever seen. “That requires a commitment from the nation,” he said. “Are they willing to pay for that? Are they willing to pay for the best and the brightest?”
The secretary also discussed the stalled bilateral security agreement that is intended to set conditions for a follow-on mission when ISAF concludes at the end of 2014.
“I know this is a time of great uncertainty for you,” the secretary said, noting that the degree of U.S. and international involvement in Afghanistan in 2015 and beyond is unclear until that agreement is in place. Hagel said he knows that uncertainty leaves troops wondering, “Will we be here? How long will we be here?”
Those unknowns can make the troops’ jobs harder, he acknowledged. “I want to reassure you we will work through this,” he pledged.
“We are making huge investments here for the future of this country,” Hagel said. “Thank you for your continued focus on your jobs [and] what you’re doing for your country. It matters, [and] it will continue to matter.”
The secretary said the Afghan national security forces have been doing “a very good job of transitioning to their full capabilities and responsibilities.” Valid and important missions nonetheless remain for U.S. troops and coalition partners in sustaining the still-fragile Afghan forces, he said: countering terrorism and training, advising and assisting the Afghan forces.
“There is a role for our coalition partners and the United States here, but that depends on the people of Afghanistan,” the secretary said.
A senior defense official who accompanied Hagel on today’s travels told reporters also on the road with the secretary that the Afghan military commanders Hagel spoke with today all said they still want help in sustainment — particularly, learning to manage maintenance: supply chains, ordering, distribution and scheduling.
The Afghan national security forces have developed remarkably rapidly over the summer fighting season and show significant improvement, the official said, “but they still have some needs.”
“Every Afghan the secretary spoke to was crystal clear,” the official said. “It’s time to sign the [bilateral security agreement].” And all Afghans who Hagel saw today similarly expressed confidence that their president, Hamid Karzai, will sign the agreement in a timely manner, he added.
“I certainly hope they’re right,” the senior official said, noting that planning any future contributions in the absence of that accord is extremely difficult for the United States and its allies.
Hagel, who will travel tomorrow to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, wrapped up his remarks to troops at Helmand with a holiday wish.
“I hope Santa stops in Afghanistan,” he said. “I know you’ve all been good. We’re very proud of you, and we’re proud of your families.”