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Defense chief Chuck Hagel in Afghanistan: 'We're still at war'

Chuck Hagel arrived in Afghanistan for his first trip abroad as U.S. defense secretary. On the flight over he told the press that he was  traveling there to better understand "where we are in Afghanistan."

Chuck Hagel arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Friday for his first trip there as the secretary of defense, saying, "We're still at war."

On the flight over, Hagel gave a short press briefing to set up the visit, saying that he was traveling to Afghanistan to thank the troops serving there and to better understand "where we are in Afghanistan."

Hagel would not talk specifics about the pace of U.S. troop drawdown through the end of 2014, saying that the president has not made his decision yet.

Asked whether he's concerned that the U.S. has forgotten about the war in Afghanistan, Hagel said, "I can't speak for the American people, or where we are on attention spans, but I would tell you now as the secretary of defense who has some responsibility for assuring that this transition be conducted responsibly, that we're still at war."

"We're still at war in Afghanistan," he later reiterated.

Then Hagel gave a somewhat convoluted reason for why the U.S. is at war there, saying the U.S. sought "to give the Afghan people an opportunity for their country, their people, to be free of terrorists and a government that was very hostile to what was going on in the neighborhood, and certainly as an effect of what happened September 11, 2001."  He added that "I think we need to follow through the reasons we first went there, what we have tried to do."

Hagel said that it "was never the intention of the United States to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely," but then added that the U.S. still has "troops in a different capacity in South Korea, troops in Europe, Okinawa."

Asked whether the war is reminiscent of Vietnam, Hagel said, "The only thing I would say is the world we live in today is so complicated. And we have to factor that into our policies and everything that we do.  And I think that, that speaks for itself, that complicated world that we live in."

Finally, asked about the recent North Korean threats, Hagel said that "the United States of America and our allies are prepared to deal with any threat, and any reality that occurs in the world."

He added, "We are aware of what's going on.  We have partnerships in that part of the world that are important, and I think that -- that that reality is --- is clear, and that's what we will -- will continue to do."

Jason Reed / AFP - Getty Images

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (C) steps off his helicopter with Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of the international security force, near Camp Eggers in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Friday.

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