Defense Sec. Ash Carter arrives in Kabul, Afghanistan, on his first trip abroad as defense secretary, walking with Gen. John Campbell.

Defense Sec. Ash Carter arrives in Kabul, Afghanistan, on his first trip abroad as defense secretary, walking with Gen. John Campbell. AP Photo/Jonathan Ernst, Pool

Defense Secretary Carter Arrives in Afghanistan Seeking 'Lasting Result'

Newly minted Defense Secretary Ash Carter made the now-customary first overseas trip to visit troops in the Afghanistan war zone -- with an endgame in mind.

KABUL, Afghanistan – Newly-minted Defense Secretary Ash Carter arrived here to visit American troops and meet with top Afghan and U.S. officials amid the likelihood that President Barack Obama’s plans to drawdown forces here would soon be revisited.

Carter was sworn into office on Tuesday and this is his first overseas trip as Pentagon chief but it is the 10th visit to Afghanistan. The top Afghanistan war commander, Gen. John Campbell, has been candid about his hope for more “flexibility” in the drawdown plans, first announced by the president last year. That hope is widely taken to mean that he wants additional troops to stay longer in Afghanistan to conduct counterterrorism missions and train and advise Afghan forces. Under Obama’s plan, there would be all but a handful of troops in the country by the end of 2016. There are currently about 10,000 American service members left serving in Afghanistan.

In public testimony earlier this month, Carter said he was open to rethinking the plan. On a military jet headed into Kabul, he told reporters he needed to gather enough data to make a recommendation to the president.

“I have come here this time, in addition to honoring our forces here, to confer with the Afghan leadership and our own military leadership so I can make my own assessment of that progress, and my own assessment of the way forward,” Carter said.  

Carter will meet with Campbell and with U.S. Central Command commander Gen. Lloyd Austin, as well as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Afghan chief executive officer Abdullah Abdullah and other senior leaders in Kabul on Saturday. Ghani, installed after a protracted electoral process last year, has lobbied Obama to slow the drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and consider leaving more troops there. The Obama plan was formulated when Hamid Karzai, whose relationship with Washington was rocky at best, refused to sign a security agreement that would allow U.S. troops to stay. Ghani has positioned himself much differently on the issue.

Obama has sought to establish a legacy in which he has ended two wars before he leaves the White House in 2017 in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the reality of the threat posed by the Islamic State has begged questions about the wisdom of ending both wars with few troops left in either country. The complete withdrawal of

American troops from Iraq in 2011 has haunted the U.S. military and, perhaps more privately, the White House, as it is blamed in part for the rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS, in Iraq and Syria.

Administration critics fear Obama’s drawdown order in Afghanistan, if it stands, could let extremists gain ground as American forces leave. Carter told reporters that he doesn’t yet see signs that the Islamic State has established itself in Afghanistan in any significant way. “I’ve seen reports of people essentially rebranding themselves as ISIL here in Afghanistan as has occurred in other places,” he said. “The reports I’ve seen still have them in small numbers and aspirational.”

Carter is expected to be an activist secretary whose depth of knowledge about policy and operational issues may help influence the debate at the White House.

“We want a lasting result here,” he said.

Despite crises around the world that will demand his attention, Carter said he chose Afghanistan as his first destination because it’s where so many American troops remain. “The reason why this destination, Afghanistan, in my very first week in office, is because this is where we still have 10,000 American troops,” he said in the press cabin of his jet. Their welfare is of utmost importance to him, he said, and he wants to make sure the troops know that. “They come first in my mind always.”

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