WASHINGTON — Former U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel believes the situation in Afghanistan is “worse than it’s ever been,” saying the U.S. will eventually need to leave the country.
A former Republican senator, Hagel crossed party lines and served from 2013-2015 under President Barack Obama as his third secretary of defense. During that period, he got a chance to take a close-in look at the situation in both Afghanistan and Syria, and his conclusions about the future of both countries are not positive.
Asked if America will ever be able to leave Afghanistan, Hagel was unequivocal: “Yes, I do. I mean, at some point we’re going to have to.”
“After 17 years in Afghanistan, the situation is worse than it’s ever been. I think the American people, the Congress, the United States are going to start asking some pretty good questions,” Hagel said. “The American military can’t fix the problems in Afghanistan. Poppy production, corruption, tribal decisions, topography. All the uncontrollables are there. You don’t fix that with the military.”
Members of Congress are, indeed, asking questions. During a Feb. 6 House Armed Services Committee hearing, current Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis was grilled by an impassioned Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., who predicted Mattis would need to tell President Donald Trump to pull out of Afghanistan during his presidency.
“I think there’s got to be a time that you would say to President Trump: ‘We have done all we can do.’ Blood and treasure is lost and we have nothing to show that we’ve gained, except we still have trouble with the leaders of Afghanistan having sex with little boys,” Jones told Mattis.
“It’s been a long, hard slog, and I recognize that,” Mattis responded, before defending the administration’s altered strategy on Afghanistan, which included adding forces back into the country — something Hagel is not impressed with.
“We tried that. Had over 100,000 troops in there for a number of years,” Hagel said. “So yeah, we’re going to leave [at] some point, sure.”
No power over Syria
Hagel was just as pointed in discussing Syria, where he says the U.S. essentially folded its hand when Obama declined to launch military action following the use of chemical weapons by the government of President Bashar Assad.
Asked how the situation in Syria shakes out, Hagel said: “I don’t think the United States is going to be anywhere near making that final decision. How could we? I mean, what capabilities, what leverage do we have?”
“How is the United States going to influence the outcome of Syria? The Russians will. The Iranians, the Turks and Assad will, and of course remnants of ISIS are still there, [the] Nusra [Front], other smaller terrorist groups are still there,” Hagel continued, using an acronym for the Islamic State group. “But I don’t know where the strategy is or what they think there is going to be in this administration to be able to influence the outcome of Syria.”
The former secretary believes not launching that strike was a clear signal to Russia that the U.S. was “not going to be players in Syria, and we were not going to be involved,” noting that after that, Russia quickly moved into Syria and built up what had been a relatively small military base.
“And now they’ve got a significant set of sophisticated assets in Syria and now really hold the cards in Syria,” he said, adding that in addition to Russia, Iran and Turkey will have a bigger say than the U.S. in the final outcome of Syria.
On Turkey, Hagel expressed frustration that the current situation, with Turkish forces targeting Kurds inside Syria, could have been avoided had the U.S. taken seriously statements from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“We’ve got a problem with the Turks because we didn’t listen to them,” Hagel said, recounting a 2014 meeting he had with Erdogen where the Turkish leader laid out his priorities.
“He told me directly in 2014, fall 2014, ‘Mr. Secretary, ISIS is not our No. 1 threat. They’re a problem. The Kurds have been and will continue to be until we win. And we will do everything and anything we need to do to eliminate the Kurds,’ ” Hagel recounted. “Now, if a country says that that’s the No. 1 internal security interest, we’re not going to convince them otherwise.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.