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Afghan bombers strike during US defense secretary visit

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Militants staged two deadly suicide attacks Saturday to mark the first full day of U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's visit to Afghanistan, a fresh reminder that insurgents continue to fight and challenges remain as the U.S.-led NATO force hands over the country's security to the Afghans.

A suicide bomber on a bicycle struck outside the Afghan Defense Ministry early Saturday morning, and about a half hour later, another suicide bomber attacked a police checkpoint in Khost city, the capital of Khost province in eastern Afghanistan.

Nine people were killed in the bombing at the ministry, and an Afghan policeman and eight civilians, who were mostly children, died in the blast in Khost, said provincial spokesman Baryalai Wakman.

“This attack was a message to him,” Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said of Hagel, in an email to reporters about the defense ministry attack.

Hagel was nowhere near the blasts, but heard them across the city. He told reporters traveling with him that he wasn't sure what it was when he heard the explosion.

“We're in a war zone. I've been in war, so shouldn't be surprised when a bomb goes off or there's an explosion,” said Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran.

Asked what his message to the Taliban would be, he said that the U.S. was going to continue to work with its allies to insure that the Afghans have the ability to develop their own country and democracy.

Hagel praised the sacrifices of American troops in Afghanistan.

“As I begin my time as secretary of defense, I look forward to hearing from you, seeing this war from your vantage point and working to make sure you get what you need to finish the fight and come home safe,” he said.

On Tuesday, the outgoing head of the U.S. military's Central Command, General James Mattis, disclosed that he recommended keeping 13,600 American troops in Afghanistan — above the range of troop levels U.S. officials have said were being considered by the White House.

“I think it is important, General Mattis — all of our commanders — have an opportunity for their input. The president wants that, needs that, welcomes that,” Hagel said, without disclosing his own thinking. He said Obama had not made a final decision.

Talking in broad terms about the end of the U.S. combat mission, Hagel remarked at one point to reporters: “It was never the intention of the United States to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely.”

He added that did not mean the residual U.S. force after 2014, whatever size that would be, was not also significant — pointing to lasting U.S. military contingents in Europe, South Korea and Japan. But the role of the U.S. mission would change as Afghans take charge of their security.

Asked about how the war would end, Hagel said: “I think we are transitioning in a way that gives the Afghan people a very hopeful future.”

Hagel, in his message to troops, said he believed putting Afghans in full control of their country's security by the end of next year was a “clear and achievable” goal.

Hagel's first visit to Kabul as Pentagon chief comes as the U.S. and Afghanistan grapple with a number of disputes, from the aborted handover of a main detention facility — canceled at the last moment late Friday as a deal for the transfer broke down — to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's demand that U.S. special operations forces withdraw from Wardak province just outside Kabul over allegations of abuse.

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