OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Hagel drops drone medal

The lobbying to change the medal paid dividends, after Hagel first called for a review from the Joint Chiefs and then issued Monday’s decision.

“The medal was originally conceived to be awarded only to those men and women who, while serving off the battlefield, have an extraordinary impact on combat operations. While the review confirmed the need to ensure such recognition, it found that misconceptions regarding the precedence of the award were distracting from its original purpose,” Hagel said in a statement.

The protests over the medal came soon after it was announced by former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. They focused on the notion that those who are operating thousands of miles from the battlefield would be given a higher honor than service members directly facing combat.

Pentagon officials tried to argue that the Distinguished Warfare Medal was only going to be awarded for extraordinary actions, but that did little to stop the criticism.

Hagel received praise from lawmakers for scrapping the drone medal, saying he was siding with veterans and honoring the previously established medals for valor.

Hagel back on Capitol Hill Tuesday: Hagel will be returning to Capitol Hill for the first of two congressional hearings on Tuesday, where he will defend the Pentagon’s budget proposals in front of a skeptical congressional audience.

Hagel was grilled on a number of topics when he appeared before the House Armed Services Committee last week, on everything from the department’s plans for new base closures to funding for missile defense.

Tuesday’s appearance before the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee will be a much cozier affair than last week’s hearing, where not all members got the chance to question Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.

Still, he is sure to face serious questions on the Pentagon’s budget plans, which re-introduce many policies that were rejected by Congress in last year’s budget request.

On Wednesday, Hagel and Dempsey will be back once again before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the scene of Hagel’s rough confirmation hearing.

US sets stage for Russia talks: National Security Adviser Tom Donilon is busily laying the groundwork for what could be a contentious round of bilateral talks between Washington and Russia later this year.

Donilon met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and a host of top Russian national security and foreign policy officials on Monday, according to a White House statement.

The meetings focused "on the full range of bilateral issues" facing the two nations, according to National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.

Russia and the United States have been at loggerheads over the Obama administration's missile defense plans to push those American systems eastward into European countries along the Russian border.

Thee White House plans to field a massive network of land- and sea-based ballistic missile interceptors to defend against potential long-range missile threats from Iran by 2020.

Russia has strenuously opposed that plan, arguing the weapons could easily be used to take out Russian-operated missile systems stationed in the region.

Dempsey met with Russia's top military officer, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, to discuss the administration's missile defense plans for Eastern Europe.

"I personally believe that we will find common ground with the Russian military," Dempsey said at the time, according to the four-star general's spokesman, Col. David Lapan.

Dunford to brief Congress on war plans: In his first appearance before Congress since being confirmed last November, Gen. Joseph Dunford — head of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan — will testify before Congress Tuesday to outline his strategy to get American troops out of the country by next year.

The four-star Marine Corps general replaced retired Gen. John Allen as the top American commander in Afghanistan last year. As the senior U.S. officer in the country, Dunford will oversee the withdrawal of the 66,000 U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan by 2014.

In March, Dunford and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham told House defense panel Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) they supported deploying 13,600 American forces in Afghanistan after President Obama's 2014 withdrawal deadline.

Those numbers, initially proposed by former Central Command chief Gen. James Mattis, puts Dunford at odds with the White House's call for between 8,000 and 12,000 U.S. troops for postwar Afghanistan.

Administration officials have also flirted with the idea of leaving no American forces in the country after 2014.

That said, it will take years before Afghan military forces will be able to flush the Taliban out of Afghanistan, leaving the country mired in conflict long after American forces leave, according to Dunford.

"My assumption is that the [Afghan] insurgency will still exist after 2014," Dunford told ABC News earlier this month. "The conditions are not yet set for a stable and secure Afghanistan in the long-term."

Half of the 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan are scheduled to withdraw from the country this spring. The final 32,000 American forces remaining in the country will start coming home following the country's presidential election in April 2014 — officially ending America's combat role.

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