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    Discussions on post-2014 presence continue: Hagel

    WASHINGTON (PAN): US troops staying beyond 2014 in Afghanistan would have two major roles to play -- countering terrorism and training Afghan forces, the Defense Secretary nominee, Chuck Hagel, told lawmakers on Thursday.The hearing will lead to a final Senate vote on Hagel's appointment.

     “We have a plan in place to transition out of Afghanistan, continue bringing our troops home, and end the war there," the former Nebraska senator told the panel, calling the Afghan war the longest in the American history.

    "As you know discussions are ongoing about what the US presence in Afghanistan will look like after 2014,” Hagel told the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee.

     “The President (Barack Obama) has made clear and I agree that there should be only two functions for US troops that remain in Afghanistan after 2014: counterterrorism particularly to target Al Qaeda and its affiliates, and training and advising Afghan forces,” he said. “It’s time we forge a new partnership with Afghanistan, with its government and, importantly, with its people,” Hagel said.

    The Defense Secretary nominee said that the war against terrorism would continue. “As Secretary of Defense I will ensure we stay vigilant and keep up the pressure on terrorist organizations as they try to expand their affiliates around the world, in places like Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa,” he said.

    “At the Pentagon, that means continuing to invest in and build the tools to assist in that fight, such as special operations forces and new intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance technologies. And it will mean working hand-in-hand with our partners across the national security and intelligence communities, to confront these and other threats, especially the emerging threat of cyber warfare,” he said.

    Earlier in his opening remarks, Senator Carl Levin, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that Hagel, as the Defense Secretary would be in a position to make key recommendations regarding Afghanistan, where the US is down to the pre-surge level of troops, with 66,000 military personnel in the country. 

    “The Secretary of Defense is called upon to advise the President on the size and mission of a post-2014 so-called residual force and the pace of the drawdown between now and the end of 2014.  The key to this transition is ensuring the readiness and ability of Afghan security forces to take over the defense of their own country,” he said. 

    “I have always believed that should be our main mission and its key to success.  During my trip to Afghanistan with Senator Jack Reed last month, we heard from U.S. commanders on the ground that Afghan security forces are operating on their own on most operations, including conducting more than 85% of operations with limited or no U.S. support in the difficult Regional Command East,” Levin said.

     “Yet, significant obstacles remain to the process of reducing our forces and shifting responsibility to Afghan forces, including the difficulty of negotiating a status of forces agreement, including recent reports that the Afghan government might slow down a successful program of growing and training the Afghan Local Police, and including questions about the current plan to reduce the size of the Afghan National Security Forces from 352,000 to around 230,000 after 2015,” Levin said.

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