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In Afghanistan, Hagel faces early test: how many troops to leave behind

With his arduous confirmation finally over, Secretary Hagel arrived in Afghanistan to confront considerable challenges, including the pace of withdrawal and the size of the residual US force.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / March 8, 2013

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel walks with US Marine General Joseph Dunford, commander of the International Security Force, upon Hagel's arrival near Camp Eggers in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday.

Jason Reed/AP/Pool

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Washington

Chuck Hagel touched down in Kabul on Friday, his fifth visit to the country but his first as the brand new US secretary of Defense.

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With a lengthy, even bruising, confirmation process just concluded in Washington, Secretary Hagel faces some considerable challenges that await him in Afghanistan, as US and NATO troops continue to fight a nearly 12-year-long war.

Among the most daunting of these is developing a plan for withdrawing US combat forces from the country by 2014. This means wrestling with two thorny questions: How quickly should American troops be withdrawn from Afghanistan – there are currently 66,000 in the country – and what is the ideal size for the residual force that will hold down the fort and continue training Afghan security forces after 2014?

This latter issue was brought into sharp focus this week during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing with Gen. James Mattis, the outgoing head of US Central Command the military command responsible for running the war in Afghanistan.

When Gen. Mattis told lawmakers that the size of the post-2014 US troop level was still under consideration, but that he had made his own recommendation to the president, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, asked precisely what that recommendation was.

Mattis responded that he would like to see 13,600 US troops stay in Afghanistan after 2014.

This response caused a stir on Capitol Hill and within the halls of the Pentagon, because it is more than the roughly 8,000 to 12,000 that has reportedly been under consideration by the White House.

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