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Chuck Hagel is on his first trip abroad as President Obama's new secretary of defense. It's a previously unannounced three-day visit to Afghanistan, where 66,000 American troops are still fighting what's become the longest armed conflict in U.S. history. Now, one of Hagel's biggest challenges is winding down the American presence. He spoke with reporters on the plane to Afghanistan. NPR's David Welna was there.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: The last time Defense Secretary Hagel traveled to Afghanistan, it was the summer of 2008. He made his fourth trip there with then-senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama. Now, as Obama's third Pentagon chief, Hagel has picked Afghanistan for his first destination abroad.
SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: I'm going to Afghanistan first to thank our troops and acknowledge their work.
WELNA: Hagel knows well the kind of work the troops have been doing. While serving in Vietnam as an Army sergeant, he was wounded twice and received two Purple Hearts. He is the first veteran of that war to serve as defense secretary. Hagel arrived in Afghanistan just as the spring fighting season is getting under way.
He says he sees Afghan National Security forces - in his words - on the verge of stepping into the lead for all combat operations across the country, with those forces doing more of the fighting and U.S. forces playing more a support role. Still, Hagel says Afghanistan remains a dangerous and difficult mission despite suggestions that Americans have grown weary of the conflict.
HAGEL: We're still at war. I think most Americans and the Congress, the media understand that. And that fact remains.
WELNA: A big issue yet to be settled is how many U.S. forces will remain in Afghanistan once most of the troops are withdrawn by the end of next year. On the one hand, Hagel seems eager to curtail the U.S. role in Afghanistan.
HAGEL: It was never the intention of the United States to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely.
WELNA: But Hagel also foresees U.S. forces remaining in Afghanistan much as they have in other post-war zones such as Japan, Germany and South Korea. Of course in Afghanistan, there's still fighting to be done, and counterterrorism will be one mission U.S. troops will still be responsible for. Still, Hagel speaks of what he calls a responsible transition.
HAGEL: 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 that should be transitioned, that role that we had.
WELNA: Hagel says the goal the U.S. has established - to have Afghans fully assume responsibility for security by the end of next year - is, as he puts it, clear and achievable. As for the U.S. troops here, he promises to make sure they get what they need to, in his words, finish the fight and come home safe. David Welna, NPR news, Kabul, Afghanistan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.