ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT — It might just be the roughest break-in period that any U.S. defense secretary has faced.
Last month, outraged Republican senators made their former colleague Chuck Hagel’s confirmation process the most contentious in the nation’s history. He stumbled in a confirmation hearing, and some senators later questioned the twice-wounded Army veteran’s loyalty, saying he appeared “cozy” with Iran.
On March 1, two days after senators ended a filibuster and confirmed the former Nebraska senator as defense secretary, huge automatic budget cuts kicked in. Immediately, the so-called doomsday mechanism known as “sequestration” slashed $46 billion from the fiscal 2013 Pentagon budget, and reduced Pentagon spending by $500 billion over the coming decade — cuts that will primarily be Hagel’s to manage.
Even when he went abroad, the former Republican senator was dogged by misfortune. Over the weekend, Taliban attackers set off bombs to send what a spokesman called a “message” to Hagel on his first visit to Afghanistan, where he is charged with managing the end of the longest war in American history.
On Sunday, one day after a bicycle-riding suicide bomber killed nine civilians outside the Ministry of Defense in Kabul, Hagel was forced to rearrange scheduled activities in the Afghan capital because of an unspecified security threat. To top off the visit, mercurial Afghan president Hamid Karzai fired off a public fusillade of anti-American rhetoric, saying the United States and the Taliban are colluding.
The talk was extreme even by the prodigious standards of Karzai, who observers say is keen to assert Afghan sovereignty and show the Afghan body politic his independence from his American sponsors.
“Yesterday’s attack was not against the U.S., it was in their favor,” Karzai said of the ministry attack. “It adds to the fear of 2014, and it strengthens the presence of American and foreign forces in Afghanistan.”
Hagel was far more restrained.
“Good exchange,” the gruff-voiced Midwesterner commented without irony after a dinner Sunday night at the Afghan presidential palace. The occasion also included a one-on-one discussion of Karzai’s televised claim Sunday that, among other misdeeds, the United States works hand-in-hand with the Taliban to destabilize Afghanistan.
And then it got even worse. As Hagel flew toward a scheduled stop at Ramstein Air Base on Monday, an Afghan police officer opened fire and killed two American troops. Reports vary on the number, but some Afghan soldiers and policement also were killed. The attack happened in Wardak province, from which Karzai recently attempted to expel American troops over allegations of murder and kidnapping that NATO commanders dismiss as fabricated.
More problems were simmering stateside in controversies raging at the Pentagon. Outraged lawmakers are pushing to change the military justice system in the wake of Air Force officer’s unilateral decision to overturn a sexual assault conviction imposed on another fighter pilot.
In a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer, Hagel acknowledged that the case raises “a significant question” about whether it’s appropriate for a convening authority to have responsibility for reviewing court martial proceedings and sentences. He said he has asked the Air Force secretary and the DOD’s top lawyer to review the case and report back on whether he should consider changing the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Meanwhile, lawmakers, troops and veterans alike have protested the new Distinguished Warfare Medal, aimed at drone pilots and cyber warriors who go above and beyond, but which outclasses some medals that require risking life and limb to receive.
Hagel, who was twice wounded in Vietnam and is a lifetime member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart and the VFW, told veterans groups and lawmakers in a Thursday letter that he has discussed the issues with the service chiefs and secretaries and believes the medal is at the appropriate level, but on Monday it was learned he had ordered another review on its ranking.
As he flew home Sunday, things continued to go askew for Hagel, as one final cancellation made a hole in his schedule.
This change, however, might presage a change for the better in the defense secretary’s fortunes.
He’d planned to visit U.S. troops wounded in the Afghan war at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. But with casualties down dramatically this year, however, there weren’t any injured troops for Hagel to meet.
Stars and Stripes’ Jennifer Hlad contributed to this report.