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 as commandos face a Monday deadline to leave.
Hagel's comments came on his first trip to Afghanistan as defense secretary. On his first morning in Kabul, two suicide bombings, one outside the Afghan Defense Ministry and the other near a police checkpoint in eastern Khost province, killed at least 19 people, including a U.S. contractor. A Taliban spokesman said the blast outside the defense ministry was a message to the visiting Pentagon chief.
The violence and the order to withdraw the special operations forces underscore the military and diplomatic complexities confronting the Obama administration and the U.S.-led NATO force as they work to end combat operations in 2014.
Hagel said he could hear the explosion during a meeting held at a safe location a distance away from the site.
"We're in a war zone, I've been in war. You know, so — you shouldn't be surprised when a bomb goes off or there's an explosion," Hagel said.
Hagel is expected to meet Sunday 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.
U.S. officials 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 Brigadier Adam Findlay, NATO's deputy chief of staff of operations and a member of the Australian military. "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."
A senior defense official said Saturday 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.
Findlay said NATO officials have done "prudent planning" to withdraw special operations forces and replace them with conventional forces, if Karzai sticks to his edict after meetings this weekend with Hagel and the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Joseph Dunford.
The order for the U.S. forces to leave comes despite worries that Wardak could be more vulnerable to the Taliban and insurgents. "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.
After a meeting with Karzai and the Afghan defense minister earlier Saturday, Dunford reiterated that a compromise allowing some commandos stay is possible.
"We agreed to continue to work this issue with his minister, to ensure that we have adequate protection for the force, that we were going to accomplish our security mission in Wardak, and also meet his concerns about moving Afghan forces in the lead," Dunford said.
On Saturday Hagel flew to Bagram Air Field, about an hour outside the capital, 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.