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Defense Secretary Hagel Navigates Afghan War Zone


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

Less than two weeks after being sworn in, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is on his first trip abroad. He's in Afghanistan visiting U.S. troops who have been fighting what has become the longest armed conflict in American history. Hagel is himself a combat veteran of another long U.S. war, Vietnam, where he was injured while fighting and received two Purple Hearts. It's fallen to Secretary Hagel to make good on President Obama's promise to wind down the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

NPR's David Welna is traveling with the new secretary of defense, and he joins us on the line from Kabul.

David, Secretary Hagel is scheduled to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai today. That meeting could be tense in the wake of comments that the Afghan president made today against the U.S. David, what exactly did Karzai say?

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Karzai was on national television and he was speaking the day after there were two explosions that rocked Afghanistan and killed 19 people. One of them was right outside the Defense Ministry here in downtown Kabul. And the Taliban claimed credit for the bombing in Kabul. There was another one on the border with Pakistan in the province of Khost. And Karzai commenting on this said, "The explosions in Kabul and Khost yesterday," I'm quoting him now, "showed that they," the Taliban, "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." By 2014, he's referring to the year when the U.S. intends, and coalition forces intend to pretty much withdraw from Afghanistan leaving only a residual force.

So, he's really saying that the U.S. is colluding with the Taliban, trying to make a case that they're needed to stay here longer. This day, reporters met with General Joseph Dunford, who's just taken over as the commander of the coalition forces in Afghanistan. This is his response to President Karzai's statement.

GENERAL JOSEPH DUNFORD: We have fought too hard over the past 12 years. We have shed too much blood over the past 12 years. We have done too much to help the Afghan security forces grow over the last 12 years to ever think that violence or instability would be to our advantage. That's clearly not where we are right now, and I would say that emphatically.

MARTIN: Well, David, as I understand it, Secretary of Defense Hagel and Hamid Karzai were supposed to hold a joint press conference this evening. It's been cancelled. Why?

WELNA: Well, there are lots of reasons that you could think of for this not happening. In addition to making these charges about colluding with the Taliban, Karzai also said that the U.S. was holding talks secretly with the Taliban elsewhere and he accused coalition forces of abusing students here and forbade them from arresting them. And, of course, there were more denials about that from General Dunford. But a U.S. official says that in fact the news conference was cancelled due to security reasons.

MARTIN: So I imagine, David, this is not exactly how Secretary Hagel thought his first trip to Afghanistan would go. What were his expectations?

WELNA: Well, you know, I think this may well be Karzai testing Hagel. Hagel came here I think hoping to assert his new leadership at the Pentagon and make a connection with U.S. forces serving in this war that is still ongoing. And this was really a chance to show that as a Vietnam veteran, as a winner of two Purple Hearts, as you mentioned, that he is somebody who knows what it is to be a foot soldier, an infantryman. And his coming here was a chance to really show that.

MARTIN: Hagel's confirmation hearing was controversial. Members of his own party, Republicans, were very vocal against his nomination. This, I imagine, is a chance for him to demonstrate that he is the right man for the job. Has he done that?

WELNA: Well, you know, I think that the way that he's gone around the capital and he's been out to Jalalabad, near the Pakistani border at a U.S. base there, and meeting with U.S. forces, he's shown that he's somebody who can connect with these forces. In fact, he awarded two Purple Hearts yesterday to two soldiers in Jalalabad; two soldiers, part of the 101st Airborne Division. And he's gotten a good reception from the troops here. It's really a question of how much of an impact this is going to make in Washington and the thinking about Hagel, especially among Republicans.

NPR's David Welna, traveling with the new secretary of defense in Afghanistan. David, thanks so much.

You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.