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Hagel sworn in, now the hard part begins

Analysis: Chuck Hagel is now secretary of defense, but with a world of trouble awaiting him, he may wonder whether he really wants the job.

the US Congress.

Syria: You got to have friends

The civil war in Syria, which has now claimed close to 70,000 lives, by the United Nations human rights chief’s count.

Despite recent reports the Syrian government could be open to negotiating with the rebels, President Bashar al-Assad seems as intent as ever on crushing opposition while remaining in power, and the world has, so far at least, not been eager to change that.

That may be about to change. John Kerry, on his inaugural trip as secretary of state, will take part in a “Friends of Syria” meeting in Rome on Thursday, which will include leaders of the Syrian Opposition Coalition.

Kerry has made statements indicating that the United States may at last be getting serious about aid to the struggling opposition.

“We are not coming to Rome simply to talk,” Kerry told reporters in London earlier this week, according to The Washington Post. “We’re coming . . . to make decisions about next steps.”

If those next steps include any direct military aid to the opposition, Hagel will have to get involved. Last year, his predecessor, Leon Panetta, along with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA chief David Petraeus, tried to persuade the administration to arm the rebels; the White House rejected the idea. With the situation becoming worse by the day, Washington’s security chiefs may decide to revisit their options.

Afghanistan: Is this what victory looks like?

Hagel will barely have time to catch his breath before the long agony of the war in Afghanistan catches up with him.

The United States is in the middle of a major drawdown of forces; by the end of 2014, its combat mission in Afghanistan will be over.

But Washington has repeatedly stated it will not abandon the country to an uncertain and unenviable fate. By the time its troops have left, Afghan security forces are supposed to be in a position to defend the country against any remaining insurgency, aided by an as yet undetermined number of international advisers.

But the devil, as they say, is in the details.

First, there are many questions as to whether Afghan forces will be ready to take over from the international forces any time soon. Security experts have called training efforts “fundamentally broken.”

Also, it has recently emerged that progress reports issued by the military have been severely flawed: figures citing a drop in the number of Taliban attacks on foreign troops last year were off by 7 percentage points, according to military officials, nullifying the reported gains.

“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,” reported the Associated Press.

The central question swirling in international circles now is how many foreign “advisers” will be left on the ground. Panetta met with other NATO defense ministers in Brussels last week to discuss the Afghanistan endgame. His German counterpart, Thomas de Maiziere, set off a minor contretemps when he told reporters Panetta had told him that the United States would leave between 8,000 and 12,000 troops in Afghanistan.

Panetta later called de Maiziere’s comments inaccurate, saying he had merely been discussing “ranges of options,” and that the numbers reflected the entire international force, not just US troops.

Hagel will have to try to bring some clarity to this contentious issue and, to make matters worse, he will most likely have to do it as his budget is slashed and his options are truncated.

What exactly is “sequestration”? It sounds painful.

Hagel takes office just two days before the dreaded “sequester” axe is due to fall.

The result of acrimonious negotiations between the White House and Congress in the summer of 2011, the budget cuts outlined in the sequester will fall most heavily on the Defense Department. If nothing is done to avert the measure, Hagel will see $47 billion disappear from his budget this year alone.

This will necessitate the truncation of some defense programs and a furlough of some 800,000 civilian defense workers.

Hagel has been quoted as saying that the Defense Department budget was “bloated” and needed to be “pared down.” But given the proposed across-the-board cuts, he may be rethinking his position.

By the end of the week, Hagel may be wishing the Senate had found a way of blocking his confirmation for just a little bit longer.