Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel walks with Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander… (Jason Reed / Associated…)
KABUL, Afghanistan -- Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived in Afghanistan on Friday for talks on the size of the U.S. force expected to remain in the country after next year.
The visit, which was not announced in advance, was Hagel's first to the war zone since taking office last month.
"I need to better understand what's going on there ... to get a good sense from commanders on the ground ... so I can better advise the president," Hagel told reporters on his Air Force jet before his arrival.
After undergoing a rough Senate confirmation that left even some of his supporters questioning his fitness for the job, Hagel faces heightened scrutiny on his first overseas trip.
He is scheduled to meet with Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, who took over last month as the top commander in Afghanistan, as well as with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other officials.
A critic of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during his two terms in the Senate as a Republican from Nebraska, Hagel revealed little of his own thinking about what the size of the force should be.
He emphasized the need for a "responsible transition" as 64,000 U.S. troops still in the country draw down and end their involvement in combat.
But he would not comment on how many are likely to remain after 2014 to continue training Afghan forces and to go after the remnants of Al Qaeda in the country.
"That transition has to be done right ... in partnership with the Afghans," he said, adding, "It was never the intent of the United States to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely."
The U.S. and its allies are discussing a post-2014 force of between 8,000 and 12,000 troops, of which 3,000 to 9,000 could be Americans, administration officials have said. But the White House has also publicly discussed leaving no troops after 2014.
Gen. James Mattis, the head of U.S. Central Command, told Congress this week that he had recommended keeping 13,600 troops, but administration officials say the final number is likely to be lower.
As negotiations on troop levels and financial aid have continued, Karzai has grown increasingly cantankerous. He has repeatedly called for limits on U.S. operations, including a demand last month that special operations troops stay out of Wardak, a province near Kabul that has long been fiercely fought over.
Karzai's aides accused U.S. forces and local militias under their control of torturing villagers in Wardak, a charge senior American officers say is untrue.
Hagel said he would discuss the proposed restrictions on U.S. operations with Karzai.
A former Army sergeant who was awarded two Purple Hearts during the Vietnam War, Hagel said he also plans to thank U.S. troops serving "on the front lines securing this country."
Hagel traveled four times to Afghanistan while in the Senate, including a visit in 2008 with then-Sen. Barack Obama.
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