JALALABAD, Afghanistan – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met with U.S. servicemembers on a Saturday marred by suicide blasts that killed at least 18 people in two Afghan cities and on which he found troops preoccupied with defense cuts and their financial futures rather than the ups and downs of war.
Hagel, making his first trip to Afghanistan as defense secretary, also is meeting with top U.S. commanders and was scheduled to attend talks Sunday with Afghan president Hamid Karzai on the impending end of the U.S. combat role in the country.
The reality of the 12-year-old conflict echoed through downtown Kabul on Saturday morning, when an insurgent suicide bomber on a bicycle killed nine people and injured 13 more outside the Afghan Defense Ministry. Hagel was in a briefing on a coalition base about a kilometer away and said he didn’t immediately recognize the sound of the blast. It didn’t faze him when he learned, he said later in the day.
“We’re in a war zone,” said Hagel, a veteran of the war in Vietnam. “I’ve been in war. We shouldn’t be surprised when a bomb goes off.”
A Taliban spokesman said the blast was meant to “send a message” to the new U.S. defense secretary. Later, in another illustration of the challenges the United States faces as it moves to transfer security responsibility to Afghan troops, nine people, including 8 children, were killed in a suicide blast in Khost Province on Saturday.
But Hagel’s meeting with troops in Jalalabad a few hours after the bombing showed the flipside of the challenges the U.S. military faces – with budgetary and personnel worries vying for attention with wartime operations.
In a question and answer session with about 100 members of the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the Army’s 101st Airborne at a base in eastern city of Jalalabad, questions from troops centered almost completely on the impact of sequestration and defense budget cuts, as well as how the coming downsizing of the military would affect their career prospects
Another questioner asked him if he supported extending military benefits for troops’ same-sex partners, to which he answered “absolutely.”
As Hagel shook hands with troops, 1st Sgt. Russell McIlroy told a reporter that the questions are a fair reflection the concerns of the troops under his responsibility. Anxiety is rising about what the defense cuts mean to them, he said.
“They’re definitely worried now about whether they’re going to have benefits after they put in 20 years,” McIlroy said. “With the budget, they’re worried about whether they can even make it to 20 years.”
Hagel admitted that automatic budget cuts that took effect on March 1 – cutting $500 billion out of the defense budget over ten years – could mean damaging cuts throughout the military, affecting personnel and military operations alike.
But troop salaries and benefits are being protected even above some operations, training and maintenance, he said.
“Yes, it effects everything, it effects all of our programs,” he said. “But what I’m committed to do, what our leaders are committed to… is to assure that our men and women in uniform are not affected on any of the pay (and) benefits.”
The latest cuts are the result of Congress’s inability to reach a federal deficit cutting agreement, and Congress must work to ensure troops don’t suffer and American military might is not reduced, Hagel said.
In a ceremony before the troop talk in Jalalabad, Hagel presented Purple Heart medals to two soldiers – Sgt. Jeremyah Williams and Pvt. Harry Hikes – both wounded in action in December in a car bomb attack in Jalalabad. Hagel, who himself received two Purple Hearts for combat injuries in Vietnam, thanked the troops, who he said “render as selfless a service as I know.”
Before flying to Jalalabad for the ceremony, Hagel met with officials and commanders at Bagram Air Base, including Maj. General William C. Mayville, commander of U.S. Regional Command East, where some of the most intense fighting against insurgents has taken place.
Mayville told Hagel that Afghan troops are quickly shouldering the responsibility of fighting insurgents, with between 80 and 90 percent of operations in the region conducted unilaterally by indigenous forces.
In other news Saturday in Afghanistan, a planned ceremonial handover of a prison at Bagram Airfield to Afghan control was indefinitely put on hold after an eleventh-hour disagreement between U.S. and Afghan negotiators arose, a senior defense official said on condition of anonymity.
Custody of Afghan prisoners has long been a sore point for Karzai and the Afghan government. The handover of prisoners was announced with fanfare in January, when Karzai met with President Barack Obama in Washington. The two presidents agreed to speed up the transition to Afghan-led security at the same meeting.
The basic principles of the handover agreement still stand, the senior official said, but the two sides are “resolving differences in language.”
The official refused to elaborate further on the disagreement but said the United States hopes to move ahead with the handover as soon as possible.