Pentagon Chief Hagel Makes First Trip to Afghanistan

New Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks to service members and civilian employees at the Pentagon, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, after being sworn in.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks to service members and civilian employees at the Pentagon.

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And, while there has been no final decision on the size of the post-2014 force, U.S. and NATO leaders say they are considering a range between 8,000 and 12,000. The size of that residual force is sharply smaller than what the top U.S. commander in the Middle East recommended. Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this week that his personal recommendation was for a U.S. force of 13,600, with the expectation that NATO allies would contribute another 6,000 to 7,000.

Hagel would not say what his assessment of the final post-2014 numbers is yet. But, he added that, "it is the Afghan people who need to make, and will make, their own decisions about their future. We can help. We have helped, as well as our allies. But there does come a time when that should be transitioned."

And the transition, he said, is happening in a way that give the Afghan people "a very hopeful future."

The U.S. is currently in the early stages of negotiating a bilateral security agreement with Kabul that would set the legal parameters for America's continued military and diplomatic involvement with the nation.

Another source of anxiety among the allies is Afghanistan's 2014 presidential election; Karzai, who has led the country since U.S. forces toppled the Taliban in late 2001, is not running and there is no obvious successor.

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