Chuck Hagel landed in Kabul, Afghanistan Friday for his first trip to the country since being confirmed last week as President Obama’s new secretary of defense.
Hagel told reporters on the flight that the trip was aimed at gaining a better understanding of “where we are in Afghanistan” and to thank the troops.
“I can’t speak for the American people, or where we are on attention spans, but I would tell you now as the secretary of defense who has some responsibility for assuring that this transition be conducted responsibly, that we’re still at war,” he said, responding to a question about whether people have already forgotten about Afghanistan.
He said Obama has not decided on the specific pace of a U.S. troop withdrawal through the end of 2014, but added, “it was never the intention of the United States to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely.”
There are about 66,000 troops still stationed in the country. Troop levels there hit their peak at around 100,000 in 2010.
Hagel said the United States went to war with Afghanistan “to give the Afghan people an opportunity for their country, their people, to be free of terrorists and a government that was very hostile to what was going on in the neighborhood, and certainly as an effect of what happened September 11, 2001.”
He added, “I think we need to follow through the reasons we first went there, what we have tried to do.”
Hagel was last in Afghanistan during the summer of 2008, traveling with then-Sen. Barack Obama. He was there four times while serving as a senator from Nebraska.
View photos from Hagel’s trip: