US, coalition "still at war," Hagel says in first foreign trip
US and NATO-led troops in Afghanistan are "still at war," said newly-appointed US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, who according to spokesman for the US military Jamie Graybeal arrived late Friday on his first official foreign visit, DPA reported.
Hagel is scheduled to meet with senior Afghan and coalition leaders, including Afghan President Hamid Karzai, officials said.
The decorated Vietnam War veteran addressed US and NATO-led troops in Kabul, telling them that despite Afghan forces' stepping up to lead combat operations the war for them would still be ongoing.
"Even as we move into more of a support role, this remains a dangerous and difficult mission," Hagel told the troops, according to a statement by the NATO-led coalition.
"We are still at war, and many of you will continue to experience the ugly reality of combat and the heat of battle."
Some 66,000 US troops and 30,000 NATO and allied forces are currently fighting the 11-year-old Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. Foreign troops are set to leave in 2014.
Hagel said the goal of helping Afghans assume full security responsibility is "clear and achievable."
"I believe that we are at a very important moment in this campaign, with the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) on the verge of stepping into the lead for all combat operations across the country," Hagel said.
"As the 2013 fighting season (around May) gets underway, the ANSF will be doing more and more of the fighting, and relying on you for support, training, and advice."
Hagel was sworn in as the head of Defence Department one and half weeks ago after a grueling debate in the US Senate.
The last US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta visited Afghanistan five times in his 22-month term.
Visiting Afghanistan in his first foreign trip, Hagel seems to be attempting to prioritize and repair the tenuous relationship between the US and Karzai, which has deteriorated continuously over the last couple years.
Karzai has been critical of the US mission, taking particular issue with the casualties produced among the Afghan civilian population. Last month, he ordered US Special Forces out of a volatile province.
The US and Afghanistan are also currently negotiating a post-2014 security agreement that allows the US military to stay on in an amended role after NATO troops leave.