(CNSNews.com) - Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel still can't say how many U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan after the long-planned drawdown in 2014.
"I don't know," he told the staff sergeant who asked the question Monday during Hagel's appearance with the 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea.
"And the reason I don't know is because the president has not made a decision, because we still have not signed and agreed to a bilateral security agreement with the Afghanistan government.
"And everybody understands that bilateral security agreement would be then the framework that would allow us and our ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) partners to go forward and make the decisions that would be required in our involvement, and our ISAF partners' involvement, post-2014 in Afghanistan."
Hagel said the Obama administration is "working with President Karzai and his government daily to get that bilateral security agreement completed and signed, and once we do that, then we can -- we can go forward and will go forward -- and the president then will have an ability to make some decisions."
A security agreement is "critically important" for the troops who will remain in Afghanistan after December 2014, Hagel said.
"So we'll continue to work on that agreement. I hope we'll have that agreement by the end of October, because we just can't move without it. And no president could and would ever authorize any -- any American troops anywhere unless we had a very clear agreement, nor would the Congress allow it."
Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, who heads the U.S. Central Command and is overseeing the U.S. exit, says it is a "herculean undertaking."
In an email interview with American Forces Press Service, Austin said Afghanistan's volatile security environment is a complicating factor:
“We must keep in mind that we are conducting this transition while facing a determined and formidable enemy,” he said. “And, the enemy undoubtedly has a vote in determining the course of events going forward.”
Austin said his experience in winding down the Iraq war is helping him in Afghanistan, but each case is different: “The major difference between the two countries can be summed up in two words: geography and infrastructure,” he told American Forces Press Service.
“In Iraq, we were fortunate to have access to a single ground route to the port city of Kuwait, which was a relatively short distance from Iraq.” But Afghanistan is landlocked -- it's terrain "much harsher and more difficult to negotiate,” he said.
“While we are doing well in our efforts to move equipment out of the country using various ground and air assets, the magnitude of the task at hand will continue to present a challenge and require significant resources in order to meet the desired time-frame for completion,” Austin said.
The latest progress report on Afghanistan (for summer 2013) notes that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) assumed lead responsibility for security nationwide in June 2013. And while ANSF has made "significant" progress, its "capabilities are not yet sustainable," says the head of the U.S.-led coalition.
According to the ISAF report:
--There is still widespread uncertainty among the Afghan people and in the region about what happens after 2014. "This uncertainty causes unhelpful hedging behavior," the report said.
-- The Taliban continues its campaign against international forces it considers "occupiers."
-- Al Qaeda continues to maintain support zones in the border districts, and the Haqqani Network (HQN) remains active in support of Taliban goals as well.
Four and half months ago, in mid-May, Secretary of State John Kerry said President Obama would "very shortly, not too long from now" announce how many U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan after 2014.
Obama already has said that 34,000 troops -- roughly half of the number currently there -- will come home by next February.