"I think it's always important, when new leadership comes into any office in our national security organization, that we recognize the people who make it all possible and who are the ones on the front line," Hagel told reporters traveling with him.
The last time Hagel was in Afghanistan was in summer 2008, along with then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, the Pentagon said in a release. Hagel also was a member of the first congressional delegation to visit the country in January 2002.
"I need to better understand what's going on," said Hagel, who was sworn in as defense secretary Feb. 27. "I need to talk to, listen to, get a good sense from our commanders on the ground."
Hagel said he planned to meet with Afghan officials during the weekend, including the ministers of defense and the interior, and President Hamid Karzai, who has clamped down on U.S. support operations for Afghan troops in recent weeks.
As the alliance prepares for the final stage of transitioning security responsibilities to Afghan forces by the end of 2014, Hagel said there are "a lot of big issues and challenges ahead."
"That transition has to be done right; it has to be done in partnership with the Afghans [and] with our allies," he said. "Our continued focus and energy and attention on Afghanistan is going to be very important. ... I think we are transitioning in a way that gives the Afghan people a very hopeful future."
Hagel said any post-transition mission for U.S. forces in Afghanistan will focus on offering training, assistance and advice.