By Jeremy Herb - 03/08/13 04:27 PM EST
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel traveled to Afghanistan on Friday in his first foreign trip as Pentagon chief, telling troops that U.S. goals there are "clear and achievable."
In a message to troops in Afghanistan, Hagel said the war remains “a dangerous and difficult mission” even as U.S. forces move into more of a support role.
“We are still at war, and many of you will continue to experience the ugly reality of combat and the heat of battle,” he said. “But the goal we have established — to have Afghans assume full responsibility for security by the end of 2014 — is clear and achievable.”
Obama said in January that 34,000 of the 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan will be out of the country by next year.
Hagel will also be part of the decision about how large of a post-2014 presence of U.S. and NATO troops will remain in Afghanistan.
Gen. James Mattis, the outgoing chief of U.S. Central Command, said he recommended a post-war force of 13,600 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but the actual number may be half that. NATO planners said this week that they may have final troop numbers in June.
Hagel had traveled to Afghanistan four times as a Nebraska senator, but this trip is his first as Defense secretary.