Hagel, former DOD policy chief Michele Flournoy and current Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter were the top three finalists to be Panetta's successor at DOD. He was also rumored to be at the top on Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz) list of defense chiefs during his failed presidential bid in 2008.
Hagel is also known as the chief Republican critic of the George W. Bush administration on the Iraq War. He opposed the surge in 2007, and traveled with then-presidential candidate Obama on a trip to Afghanistan and Iraq in 2008.
Speaking of Afghanistan ... : Afghan President Hamid Karzai will be traveling to Washington next month, to sit down one-on-one with President Obama to discuss the country's future once U.S. combat troops leave Afghanistan in 2014.
Current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the meeting at a joint press conference with Karzai in Kabul on Thursday, as part of the Pentagon chief's impromptu visit to the country beginning Wednesday.
During the press conference, Panetta remained mum on what those discussions between Karzai and Obama would entail.
"That will be an issue that will be discussed by the president with President Karzai, in consultation with him," according to Panetta. "And then ultimately ... that will be revealed to not only the American people, but the Afghan people as well."
The issue of the postwar American military footprint in Afghanistan along with "all other relevant issues" regarding the over decade-long conflict will be on the table during the January summit, Karzai said.
In addition, lingering questions over Afghan authority on terror detention centers in the country, continued U.S. support of Afghan security forces and other "questions that directly touch Afghan sovereignty" will all be "vital and important issues" up for debate, Karzai added.
The meeting could coincide with the release of Gen. John Allen's plan to withdraw the remaining 68,000 U.S. troops in the country and his recommendations for how many American personnel should remain in Afghanistan post-2014.
Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, will likely request a force of between 6,000 and 15,000 troops to advise and assist Afghan forces and conduct specific counterterrorism operations against Taliban and other extremist groups in the country.
But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have raised concerns over the readiness of the Afghan forces to take over from the U.S. after 2014, citing the escalating violence in the country. That specter of violence was readily apparent during Panetta's surprise visit
Out with a bang: A Taliban suicide bomber struck Kandahar airfield in southern Afghanistan on Thursday, hours after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met with top American commanders at the base.
The Taliban bomber detonated his deadly ordinance in an attempt to breach the outer security perimeter of Kandahar airfield, killing two Afghan civilians and wounding 14, according to The Associated Press.
Initial reports by Afghan officials claimed three NATO troops were also injured in the bombing. However, Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi could only confirm the civilian casualties to the AP.
Panetta was reportedly en route to his meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul at the time of the attack and was in no danger. He had been meeting with top U.S. commanders in southern Afghanistan and elsewhere in the country to discuss details of the Pentagon's withdrawal strategy.
The Obama administration is planning to have all U.S. combat troops out of the country by 2014. More than 33,000 American soldiers, sailors, Airmen and Marines left Afghanistan this summer.
Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is reportedly finalizing his recommendations for how to pull out the remaining 68,000 personnel in the country.
Thursday's assault was the second time this year an attempted attack on U.S. facilities in Afghanistan has taken place either during or shortly after a Panetta visit.
In March, the DOD chief was arriving at Camp Leatherneck, the Marine Corps' main base in southern Afghanistan, for an unscheduled visit when an Afghan employee at the base attempted to run down Panetta's welcome delegation in a stolen white Hilux sport utility vehicle belonging to British forces.
Batting order: On Thursday, House Armed Services Committee chief Buck McKeon got his batting order set among the panel's various subcommittees, setting the lineup for the next legislative season.
Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) beat out fellow Virginia Republican Rob Wittman and fended off a challenge by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) to secure the House Armed Services Seapower subcommittee chairmanship, vacated by former Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.).
Wittman will take over as the House panel's Readiness subcommittee chairman, replacing Forbes when he moves to the Seapower subpanel, according to a statement by McKeon's office.
On the air power side, Ohio Republican Rep. Mike Turner will take the gavel as the new chairman of the committee's Tactical Air and Land Forces subpanel, replacing longtime subcommittee chief former Rep. Roscoe Bartlett. Turner and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) were considered the front-runners for the job prior to McKeon's announcement.
Thornberry will remain in his post, dual-hatted as committee vice chairman and head of the Emerging Threats and Capabilities subpanel, while Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) will take the reins from Turner on the Strategic Forces subcommittee.
Rounding out McKeon's roster of subcommittee chairman is Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who will head up the House panel's Readiness subcommittee
In Case You Missed It:
— Rice withdraws nomination for Secretary of State
— Senate intel panel approves release of torture study
— NASA could suffer under sequestration, says lobbying group
— US urges action from Pakistan on roadside bombs
Follow us on Twitter: @DEFCONHill, @JHerbTheHill, @CMunozTheHill
You can sign up to receive this overnight update via email on The Hill’s homepage.