JALALABAD, Afghanistan — U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he believes U.S. officials will be able to work things out with Afghan leaders who have ordered special operations forces out of Wardak province, even though the deadline for their removal is Monday.
Hagel's comments came on his first trip to Afghanistan as defense secretary. His first morning in Kabul was marked with a suicide bombing outside the Afghan Defense Ministry that a Taliban spokesman said was a message to the visiting Pentagon chief. At least 19 people were killed in the bombing, and Hagel said he could hear the explosion from the safe location where he was at a meeting a distance away from the site.
"We're in a war zone, I've been in war. So, shouldn't be surprised when a bomb goes off or there's an explosion," Hagel said.
Hagel is expected to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who ordered the U.S. forces to leave the province just outside Kabul because of allegations that Afghans working with the commandos were involved in abusive behavior and torture.
"I feel confident that we'll be able to work this out," Hagel told reporters during a stop at Jalalabad Airfield, where he met with commanders and spoke to troops.
A senior defense official said that while it's not yet clear what will come out of Hagel's meeting with Karzai, the U.S. believes the door is not closed to resolving the issues.
A coalition official who works with special operations forces said Saturday that while the commandos are ready to pull out, their operations are continuing at this point, and there is some hope that an 11th hour negotiation can be reached that will allow them to stay. The official said the Afghan forces in Wardak are not yet ready to operate without the continued assistance and training from the U.S. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
According to Brigadier Adam Findlay, NATO's deputy chief of staff of operations and a member of the Australian military, an option would be to replace the special operators with conventional military forces. Findlay said NATO officials have made provisional plans to withdraw the commandos if Karzai sticks to his edict after meetings this weekend with Hagel and the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Joseph Dunford.
"What we've got to try to do is go to a middle ground that meets the president's frustration," but also keeps insurgents from using Wardak as a staging ground to launch attacks on the capital, Findlay told The Associated Press Saturday.
The order for the U.S. forces to leave comes despite worries that Wardak could be more vulnerable to the Taliban and insurgents. The official who works with commando forces said the U.S. does not want to create an opening for insurgents to more easily make their way to Kabul.
U.S. officials also insist they have seen no evidence that American forces were involved in the abuse of Afghan civilians.
"Each of those accusations has been answered, and we're not involved," said NATO's Findlay. "There are obviously atrocities occurring there, but it's not linked to us, and the kind of atrocities we are seeing, fingers cut off, other mutilations to bodies, is just not the way we work."
On Saturday Hagel flew to Bagram Air Field, about an hour outside the capitol, where he met with Maj. Gen. William Mayville, the U.S. commander of forces in the east. He also met with the commander of special operations forces in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Raymond Thomas.
There are about 10,000 U.S. and coalition special operations forces in the country training Afghan local police and commando units as well as battling insurgents.
Hagel — who received two Purple Hearts after being wounded twice in Vietnam — later handed out his first combat awards as Pentagon chief. He pinned Purple Hearts onto Sgt. Jeremyah Williams and PFC Harry Hikes, two 101st Airborne Division soldiers who were involved in a car bomb attack about 100 feet from their post at a base entry point. After the brief ceremony at Jalalabad Air Base, Williams said it was "an honor and a privilege" to receive his Purple Heart from Hagel.
Speaking to about 200 troops at the Jalalabad base, Hagel made it clear that he knows what they and their families are going through. He fielded several questions from soldiers worried about how the ongoing budget battle in Washington will affect their retirement and other benefits. He told them he is committed to insuring that their pay and benefits are not hurt, even though the $53 billion in cuts over the remainder of this fiscal year will "make our jobs more difficult."
Hagel's trip comes at a turning point in the conflict, as U.S. and NATO allies set their timetable for the withdrawal of combat troops and pressure mounts on the U.S.-led effort to train the Afghan forces. And he must manage the transition as the U.S. ramps up what will be a difficult and expensive extraction of equipment from the country even as Congress slashes billions of dollars from the defense budget.
He has said he wants to use the trip to better understand what's going on in Afghanistan and to get an assessment on the progress of the Afghan forces as they prepare to take over the security of their own country.
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