Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks to members of the military during his June 1 visit to Bagram Airfield in Bagram, Afghanistan. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)
BAGRAM AIR FIELD, AFGHANISTAN — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was meeting Sunday with American military commanders in Afghanistan to discuss progress Afghan forces are making as the U.S. looks to pull all but about 10,000 troops out of the country by the end of the year.
His visit comes in the emotional aftermath of the successful release of America’s only prisoner of war in Afghanistan, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, and just days after President Obama announced the drawdown that will leave fewer than 1,000 U.S. forces in the country by the end of 2016.
Obama was at the same Bagram base just a week ago.
Hagel told reporters traveling with him that he wants to hear about what the Afghans are doing and how well they are improving their air force. He also wants to learn more about the government’s ability to sustain and equip its forces.
Despite optimistic reports from top military commanders about how far the Afghan security forces have come, there are still nagging doubts and frustration with the slow progress the higher level headquarters and ministries have made in setting up long-range budgeting and logistics capabilities.
While they say the Afghans can fight, there is concern about the government’s ability to ensure that over time troops have the food, fuel, weapons and other equipment they need.
“I’m confident they will be able to stand on their own,” said Hagel.
He also will meet with a gathering of U.S. troops, and a prime topic will be the release Saturday of Bergdahl.
The Taliban turned the 28-year-old soldier over to U.S. special operations forces in eastern Afghanistan. In exchange the U.S. released five detainees from the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention center, and transferred them to Qatar.
The Afghanistan stop marks the first of several days Hagel will spend talking with his commanders and other nations’ defense ministers about the troop drawdown and the future of Afghanistan.
He planned to gather with other defense chiefs this week at a NATO meeting in Brussels. Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan is expected to also attend the NATO meeting as well as Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the top NATO commander.
Hagel has acknowledged there are still many unanswered questions about the drawdown, including how many of the nearly 10,000 U.S. forces remaining in the Afghanistan next year will be devoted to counterterrorism missions.
He said it also was unclear how many troops NATO and other international partners would contribute and what exactly those forces would do.
But he said he expects allies will make their decisions about the number and type of troops they would commit to the post-2014 mission in Afghanistan by the end of June.
This is Hagel’s third trip to the warfront since he became Pentagon chief more than a year ago, a relatively small number of visits compared to previous defense secretaries who at the peak were going up to four times a year.