Media Availability with Secretary Hagel en route to Manas, Kyrgyzstan

En route Mana, Kyrgyzstan–(ENEWSPF)–March 8, 2013.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL:  All right, so this is what I speak into?  Thank you.  Dinner is coming, by the way and drinks.                  

So, let me take a minute to give you a little overview of the trip, at least why I wanted to take it and then we’ll open it up and talk about whatever you want to talk about.  First, I want to acknowledge that you’re on an airplane not unfamiliar with you — to you, but it is crewed by an Omaha crowd.  So I just want to restate the fact that you should have absolute confidence in the Nebraska leadership, and quality of capability that is displayed every — every minute, of every day. 

I want to thank the guys who are out of Omaha and Bellevue and I can tell you I found one of our communications guys is from Freemont, Nebraska and he wanted me to know that his parents had voted for me twice.  So he’s obviously one of the smarter guys, and better looking than most.  I seriously want to thank this team because of what they do for our country.  I am going to Afghanistan first to thank our troops, and acknowledge their work.  And I think it’s always important when new leadership comes in to any office in our national security organization, that we recognize the people who make it all possible and who are the ones on the front lines securing this country. 

So that’s — that’s the first reason I am going.  Second is obviously to better understand where we are in Afghanistan.  I have not been to Afghanistan since I was with then Senator Obama in the summer of 2008.  I’ve been there a few times.  In fact, I was in the first Senate [congressional delegation] CODEL to go into Afghanistan, which many of you may know — back in I think late January 2002.  Senator McCain led that delegation with Senator Lieberman at the time.  So, I need to better understand what’s going on there.  I need to talk to, listen to, get a good sense from our commanders on the ground.  I look forward to reacquainting myself with President Karzai.  

I’ve known President Karzai since 2002.  In fact, I was the co-author of the first Afghan Assistance Act that passed the authorizations committee and conference report, but I don’t believe it passed appropriations.  Henry Hyde was — this guy right here remembers it.  Henry Hyde was chairman of the House International Relations Committee at the time, and he and I wrote the bill.  It was really the — the beginning of assistance for Afghanistan, and all the bills back then came after that piece of legislation that Chairman Hyde and I authored in December 2001, really were modeled on about a $3 billion, I think, assistance package on — on that bill. 

So, that’s the second reason I’m going, to better understand what’s going on so I can better advise the president, and to do my job as well as I can, to make my own assessment and listen to our commanders.  And I’m looking forward to that.  As well as getting a better understanding of — of, at least my assessment after listening and observing to the progress and where the Afghans are and their capabilities. And also meeting with some of our NATO — and allies — partners.  I have had this week, an opportunity to speak to a number of our allies, our partners via telephone. A number of ministers of defense.  This morning I spoke with Secretary General Rasmussen about Afghanistan, about his recent trip, about where he thinks we are. 

I spoke yesterday to the Afghan Defense Minister, Mohammadi and had a good visit with him.  I look forward to seeing him on this trip, and spending some time.  And then I’ve obviously had a couple of good briefings from General Dunford, and others on Afghanistan.  It’ll be a fairly quick trip, two full days.  You’ve probably seen at least some of the schedule, and I look forward to being there, and — and understanding better what we’re doing.  

One last point and then we’ll open it up to whatever you want to talk about, we have a lot of big issues and challenges ahead as we prepare for a responsible transition. And that transition has to be done right.  It has to be done in partnership with the Afghans, with our allies.  Our country as well as Afghanistan, the region and our allies have a lot at stake here.  And our continued focus and energy, and — and attention on Afghanistan is — is — is going to be very important.  And so I’d just make that comment as we lead into whatever — whatever questions that you’d like.  Okay. 


Q:  Mr. Secretary, Lita Baldor with AP.  

You talked a little bit about transition.  Have you started to think about at all, any of the — all the numbers that have been thrown at you, including the glide slope to the end of 2014 and the post-2014 numbers?  We heard General Mattis the other day say that he had hoped for a — a larger force.  And you’ve spoken a lot about sort of the transition and being able to help them with their transition.  What are your thoughts on some of those numbers? 

SEC. HAGEL:  Well, as you know the status is that the president has not made a final decision.  I think it is important that General Mattis, all our commanders have an opportunity for their input.  The president wants that, needs that, welcomes that.  I — I think my predecessor, Secretaries Panetta and Gates were the same.  I certainly need it.  And only then can we arrive with our allies, and with the — with the Afghans to the — to the right number, and the right reasons to carry out the mission that we’re committed to carry out, as — as we conduct this responsible transition. 

Q:  I’m just curious, at your confirmation hearing, even though our nation is still at war in Afghanistan, that was barely a topic of conversation.  What are your concerns as the new defense secretary, that Afghan has become a forgotten war in the minds of the American people? 

SEC. HAGEL:  Well, I can’t speak for the American people, or where we are on attention spans, but I would tell you now as the secretary of defense who has some responsibility for assuring that this transition be conducted responsibly, that we’re still at war.  I think most Americans, the Congress, the media understand that.  And that fact remains.  We have 66,000-68,000 troops still at war in — in a combat zone. And so that reality is there, must remain there.  We’ll stay focused on that.  The president, I think has been very clear on that.  Certainly those responsible for conducting that war from our country, our allies, understand we’re still at war. 

So I — I don’t minimize, or marginalize anything just because we may be transitioning to a new phase.  We’re still at war in Afghanistan. 

Q:  You had your own experience in Vietnam, and I’m wondering to what extent this is reminiscent of Vietnam in that the U.S. is trying to wind down there?  And also what is your sense of how does this end? 

SEC. HAGEL: Well, let’s not forget the beginning.  What was the point of going to Afghanistan?  Many of you — David was there.  Thom you were probably around as I recall.  It was to — part of the reason we went there was to give the Afghan people an opportunity for their country, their people, to be free of terrorists and a government that was very hostile to what was going on in the neighborhood, and certainly as an effect of what happened September 11, 2001.  It was never the intention of the United States to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely. 

So I — I think we need to follow through the reasons we first went there, what we have tried to do.  It is the — it is the Afghan people who need to make, and will make their own decisions about their future.  We can help.  We have helped, as well as our allies.  

But there does come a time when — when that should be transitioned, that role that we — we had.  As to the parallels to Vietnam?  There are always parallels to any war.  The only thing I would say is the world we live in today is so complicated.  And we have to factor that into our policies and everything that we do.  

And I — I think that, that speaks for itself, that complicated world that we live in. And I think one — one other additional point on this to your question of how it ends, I think we — we all, who have invested an awful lot here in this effort, especially the men and women who have made tremendous sacrifices for our country and their families, I — I think we are transitioning in a way that give the Afghan people a very hopeful future. 

Q:  North Korea — Chris Lawrence from CNN — North Korea recently ratcheted up its threats against the U.S., threatening to use nuclear weapons against the United States.  How do you gauge this latest threat from North Korea?  And — and what is your message to the leaders of — of the North Korean regime? 

SEC. HAGEL: Well, I think first General Mattis was asked a similar question as you know, yesterday in his hearing.  And he — he made it clear, as I did in my budget statement last Friday at the Pentagon, that the United States of America and our allies are prepared to deal with any threat, and any reality that occurs in the world.  I think that’s first.  Second, we are aware of — of what’s going on.  We have partnerships in that part of the world that are important, and I — I think that — that that reality is — is clear, and that’s what we will — will continue to do.  

MR. LITTLE: One more?

SEC. HAGEL: Yeah. 

Q:  Can I just ask you to clarify, before you said on Afghanistan that we were never meant to be there indefinitely, but there’s this discussion about a follow-on mission.  And — and so how — how do your thoughts about the follow-on mission mesh with this idea that we’re not going to be there indefinitely? 

SEC. HAGEL:  Well, first if you look at the role we’ve had in the last 12 years as the lead combatant in Afghanistan, that’s a totally different role than what we are transitioning into, as the president has laid out; training, assistance and advice.  What we’re working through, and will be working through with the Afghan government is a bilateral agreement that will address some of these future issues.  So our role as we transition out, is a totally different role than — than what we’ve seen in the last 12 years.  

We still have relationships with many countries.  We still have troops in a different capacity in South Korea, troops in Europe, Okinawa.  But those are totally different capacities than — than what we’ve seen in the past.  That’s — one more question? 

MR. LITTLE: One more question. 

Q:  Do you have a message for President Karzai on this trip?  I mean we’ve seen him in recent weeks move to kick out U.S. Special Operations troops from one province.  He’s had a series of those moves, either restricting U.S. support for Afghan forces, or — or U.S. operations in Afghanistan.  Does that concern you?  Do you have a message for him along those lines? 

SEC. HAGEL:  Well, I look forward to talking with the president about many issues, and that certainly I’m sure will be one of them.  Thank you very much.