With striking optimism, Chuck Hagel said today on his final visit to Afghanistan as US defence secretary that he believes Afghans will successfully put down a surge in Taliban attacks in the capital and stabilise the nation.
Hagel arrived in Kabul on a previously unannounced trip one day after president Barack Obama declared that he would nominate one of Hagel's former deputies, Ashton Carter, to succeed Hagel, who resigned under pressure on November 24.
In an interview with reporters travelling with him from Washington aboard a military aircraft, Hagel was in a reflective mood about America's longest war. He recalled arriving in Kabul in January 2002 as a member of a congressional delegation when security was so dicey that they arrived under cover of darkness and left before dawn. Hagel at the time was a Republican senator from Nebraska.
The Taliban, which had ruled Afghanistan since 1996, were forced from power in late 2001 just weeks after a US-led invasion prompted by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But they recovered gradually after the US shifted its military focus to Iraq in 2003, and by 2008 the US was conceding that the war in Afghanistan was stalemated.
Hagel, on his fourth trip to Afghanistan as defence secretary, said it should not be surprising that the Taliban are still able to launch significant attacks in the capital.
"The Taliban are going to continue to have pockets of resurgence, and it's predictable that they would do everything they possibly could to disrupt" the new Afghan government under president Ashraf Ghani and chief executive officer Abdullah Abdullah, Hagel said.
The Taliban clearly are aiming to disrupt the new government and undermine confidence in it. But Hagel said they have failed thus far and are unlikely to ever succeed.
"I have confidence in the Afghan security forces that they will continue to meet these challenges," he said.
Hagel said that during his visit he intended to discuss with Ghani and Abdullah the state of security in Kabul and ways that it can be improved. He said the main reason for his visit is to reinforce support for their new government, reiterate a long-term US commitment there and to thank American troops.
The US-led war in Afghanistan has lasted far longer than anyone predicted at the outset in October 2001, and the final result, after more than 2,200 US deaths, remains in doubt even as Obama officially ends the US combat mission on December 31.
Hagel said that in hindsight the struggle to prevent Afghanistan from reverting to a haven for al Qaida has been difficult but worthwhile.
"As difficult, as challenging, as long as this has been, by any definition the country of Afghanistan, the people of Afghanistan, are far better off today than they were 13 years ago, if for no other reason than they have the opportunity to decide their own fate, their own way, on their terms," he said.