By Gordon Lubold
After yesterday's vote, Chuck Hagel strode through the Pentagon's E-Ring looking for the man he most wanted to meet. The Hagel camp had hoped for more than the 58 Senate votes it picked up -- marking the slimmest confirmation margin ever for a defense secretary -- but, as one senior defense official told Situation Report: "A win is a win."
Bruised, battered but undeterred after the vote, Hagel and some key aides were walking the halls of the E-Ring when Hagel decided to look for the man he knew he should meet as defense secretary: Ray Chandler. "The first person I want to meet in the Pentagon is the Sergeant Major of the Army," Hagel quipped, as he dodged into Chandler's outer office. Hagel, the former sergeant and Vietnam vet, knew that the Army's top enlisted man is a man you always want to make happy. But Hagel created an unscripted moment in the hyper-scripted world of the defense secretary: Chandler wasn't home. We're guessing the two will meet soon.
Hagel watched the vote on C-SPAN. While yesterday's vote was being taken, Hagel sat in his transition office on the Pentagon's third deck, surrounded by the key aides who had helped him get through the last several weeks: Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs Liz King, Acting Chief of Staff Marcel Lettre, Special Assistant Aaron Dowd, cyber guru Eric Rosenbach, policy guru Eric Lynn, speechwriter Jacob Freedman, Press Secretary George Little, Assistant Press Secretary Carl Woog, and a few others. After the vote, Hagel and company clapped, he smiled, and walked back into his office to get to work.
Hagel's Job One. Hagel survived a nasty confirmation fight and will need to mend fences with some of the people in Congress who are on record saying they don't think he'll make a strong defense secretary. And, of course, sequester looms large. Assuming it goes through on Friday, the new Pentagon chief will have to contend with a $46 billion cut of its budget, furloughs for more than 800,000 defense civilians, and cuts to maintenance, training and operations across the department. Hagel will also have to get into the weeds with the budget problem Pentagon officials worry about even more: the threat of continuing to operate without a real budget and instead deal with a Continuing Resolution that hamstrings the Pentagon in myriad ways. People close to him and watching from afar say Hagel will hit the ground running on these issues.
But perhaps most important thing he'll do is build credibility within the Pentagon. Although he has the credibility of a sergeant and a combat veteran, he will need to reach out to the uniforms quickly. "The number one challenge he'll have to take forward is to establish links with and trust with the military," said one former government official to Situation Report. "I don't think he starts from square one; he starts as someone with a history in the military. There is going to be respect for his service. He is going to be credible. But I think anybody comes in new to the building, they have a set of relationships that they need to establish. I think he is experienced enough and savvy enough to recognize that."
One way he can do that is by proving to the uniforms that he is serious about taking care of the veterans who are returning and those already home. That will show, in a big way, that he wants to work with the building's senior officers in a genuine way and that he won't just pay lip service to helping wounded warriors transition home. Indeed, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, another Army veteran, was one of the first people to call Hagel after he was confirmed, and the two agreed to meet soon, defense officials said.
The former government official: "In this town, every day is a new day. If he comes in understanding that and moving forward proactively, he can either let the situation hamstring him, or he can define his own parameters. He's now a confirmed secretary of defense. So day one starts now."
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Hagel's day. Hagel walked into the Pentagon this morning at 7:30 and was sworn in at 8:15 by the "Mayor of the Pentagon" Mike Rhodes, director of administration and management. He'll be surrounded by his wife and senior aides in a private swearing-in ceremony. He will then host his first "Daily Senior Staff Update," with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey, Vice Chairman Adm. Sandy Winnefeld, and other top uniforms. And at 10:30 he'll speak to Pentagon officials and employees in the Pentagon auditorium, laying out his priorities for the department. Later, he'll meet with the service secretaries and then go to the White House for meetings with national security officials.
Of course, Hagel has to find ways to fix his relationships with much of the Senate and the rest of a doubting Congress. But Sen. Carl Levin, the Democrat from Michigan who chairs the Armed Services Committee and helped shepherd Hagel through the tortuous process, said yesterday that Hagel will find a way to work with Congress and that Congress will find a way to work with Hagel. The Cable's Josh Rogin quoted Levin yesterday: "He's a professional. We're professionals. We've all served together; we've all been through the rough and tumble of politics. Frankly, we're friends. Even those who voted against him would count themselves as friends," Levin said. "Everybody here who has worked with Senator Hagel realizes that he's not the kind of person who carries grudges ... I don't see any negative effect on his capability to run the Defense Department."
But Sen. Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina, said he had to "up his game." Graham: "I think he will be entering weak based on his performance. That's his challenge: to prove to Congress that he's capable of doing his job. I hope he will." And Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) told Rogin that Hagel can fix it if he tries. "There's no question that this process has been very damaging to him. There's no question this has not been a positive thing for him," Corker said. "My guess is that after this thing is over he's going to need to really go to work and show that he can and will be a tremendous leader at the Defense Department."
Dunford and Karzai met in Kabul. The new ISAF commander, Gen. Joe Dunford, met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai over the "security concerns" in Wardak province after Karzai's government over the weekend ordered U.S. Special Forces out of the province following what the Afghan government characterized as unaddressed complaints about alleged torture, beatings, killings and disappearances of Afghan civilians. ISAF and the Afghan government have formed a joint commission to investigate the claims, but a previous investigation conducted by ISAF has not validated any of the issues the government raised. At today's meeting, Dunford "used the opportunity to reaffirm the coalition's commitment to protecting the safety and ensuring the security of Afghan citizens," ISAF said in a statement this morning.
Yesterday, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little wouldn't say how long the commission will take to do its work and said he didn't want to speak for the ISAF commander as to whether the Pentagon was pushing to keep the Special Forces units in Wardak. Little: "I think we have to let the process work in Kabul, and that process hasn't begun in earnest yet, so we are working with the Afghans and consulting with them to understand the specific concerns and then to arrive at a way ahead." ISAF officials so far have declined to say what the status of the forces are in Wardak or if they are packing up yet to leave.
Consider this from the Department of Messaging: It's not "Women-in-Combat," which is seen by some as a misnomer and does nothing to acknowledge and honor what women have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than a decade. Some uniforms believe the best way to describe integrating women into combat roles should be referred to as "Women-in-Combat Arms."
Mistakes were made. The Pentagon acknowledged yesterday that a mistake was made in that data tracking the number of Taliban attacks in Afghanistan. AP's Bob Burns reported that ISAF in Kabul incorrectly reported the decline in attacks last year by seven percentage points. That means the claim made in January that Taliban attacks were down by 7 percent had to be revised altogether, and that in fact there had been no change in the number of attacks. Burns: "The corrected numbers - from the original reports of a 7 percent decline to one of no change - could undercut the narrative promoted by the international coalition and the Obama administration of an insurgency in steep decline. A coalition spokesman, Jamie Graybeal, attributed the miscounting to clerical errors and said the problem does not change officials' basic assessment of the war."
Pentagon pressec George Little reiterated yesterday at a briefing yesterday that the revision to the reporting did not change the fundamental narrative about Afghanistan. Little: "This is a regrettable error in our database systems that was discovered during a routine quality check. We are making the appropriate adjustments. In spite of the stated adjustment, our assessment of the fundamentals of progress in Afghanistan remains positive. The fact that 80 percent of the violence has been taking place in areas where less than 20 percent of the Afghan population lives remains unchanged. As we have said repeatedly, we have pushed the Taliban out of the population centers, and they have failed to retake any of the areas they lost during the surge, and this remains true."
U.S. Aid for Syria? After months of refusing to provide direct, public aid to Syrian rebels, the U.S. may be considering a major change in its approach. Frustrated that the Assad regime remains in power, the Obama administration is considering providing rebel with equipment such as body armor and armored vehicles, as well as training and other assistance. The WaPo: "The administration has not provided direct aid to the military or political side of the opposition throughout the two-year-old conflict, and U.S. officials remain opposed to providing weapons to the rebels. Elements of the proposed policy, which officials cautioned have not yet been finalized, are being discussed by Secretary of State John F. Kerry in meetings this week and next with allies in Europe and the Middle East as part of a coordinated effort to end the bloody stalemate, which has claimed about 70,000 lives."
- The Duffel Blog: Facing mass layoffs, the Taliban protest U.S. sequester.
- The Atlantic: The Taliban's new, more terrifying cousin.
- AP: Israel: Mortar shell from Syria lands in Golan.
- NYT: "Honor Betrayed:" Attacked at 19 by an Air Force trainer and speaking out.
- The New Yorker: (Coll): Are we still fighting al-Qaida?
- AlJazeera: Iran nuclear talks end without breakthrough.
- LAT: 10 hurt in Afghanistan suicide attack.
- Small Wars: The role of ideology in negotiation and conflict resolution during the Tuareg rebellions.
- U.S. News: New report on al-Qaida: Terrorism more about ‘Bloods and Crips' than ‘Koran and Hadith.'