KABUL — In his first overseas trip as defense secretary, Chuck Hagel landed Friday in Afghanistan, a country fast fading from political debate and public interest at home, but where 66,000 US troops continue to experience what he described as ‘‘the ugly reality of combat and the heat of battle.’’
“We are still at war,’’ said Hagel, who earned two Purple Hearts while serving as a combat infantryman in Vietnam.
Before landing in Kabul, the Afghan capital, Hagel said a significant focus of his visit would be assessing the plans for transferring responsibility for security to the central government, army, and the police in Afghanistan by the time the NATO combat mission expires in December 2014.
‘‘That transition has to be done right,’’ Hagel said. ‘‘It has to be done in partnership with the Afghans, with our allies.’’
He emphasized the importance of ‘‘our continued focus and energy and attention on Afghanistan’’ even as the number of US troops declines.
Hagel has visited Afghanistan four times before, while serving as a Republican senator from Nebraska. His first trip, in January 2002, came just a month after the rout of Al Qaeda fighters and the Taliban government that had provided Osama bin Laden safe haven.
His most recent visit was in July 2008, when he accompanied a Democratic senator from Illinois — Barack Obama, who as president nominated Hagel to his current post. Since retiring from the Senate in 2009, Hagel has not been as directly involved in Afghan policy as was his predecessor, Leon E. Panetta, who arrived at the Pentagon from a tour as CIA director.
Given the evolving mission, Hagel acknowledged that another goal for his visit was ‘‘to better understand where we are in Afghanistan’’ as the US and allied role shifts from combat to a mission focused on training and advising.
‘‘Even as we move into more of a support role, this remains a dangerous and difficult mission,’’ Hagel said in a separate statement to US and coalition personnel. ‘‘But the goal we have established — to have Afghans assume full responsibility for security by the end of 2014 — is clear and achievable.’’
The small US military force that carried out the invasion of Afghanistan, ordered in retaliation for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda, grew to more than 100,000 under Obama’s troop increase. But it has dropped to 66,000 and by early next year will be cut in half, falling to 32,000.
“I need to talk to, listen to, get a good sense from our commanders on the ground,’’ Hagel said.
He also was scheduled to meet with President Hamid Karzai .
Obama has made no decisions on the size of a possible US military presence beyond 2014, and Hagel said this trip would put him in a better position to offer advice to the president. NATO defense ministers have discussed proposals for a US and alliance force of 8,000 to 12,000 troops after 2014, although senior US commanders proposed a combined coalition deployment of up to 20,000 troops.