KABUL, Afghanistan (March 15, 2012) -- His sixth trip to Afghanistan, more so than some others, made him feel there's a "very good chance of succeeding" in the mission and the long war here, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said here today.
The secretary and Lt. Gen. Curtis M. "Mike" Scaparrotti, commander of the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command, spoke to Afghan and U.S. reporters here before Panetta left Afghanistan for Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, for the last stop on his five-day tour to Central Asia and the Middle East.
In previous visits, Panetta said, he was concerned about differences in strategy among military leaders, civilian governors and coalition and Afghan troops. This time, he said, everyone "absolutely agrees" with the strategy planned through 2014.
The secretary said over two days in Afghanistan he has met with provincial and national Afghan leaders, coalition and Afghan troops, and commanders and civil authorities in Helmand province and here in the Afghan capital.
All of those groups, and the Afghan people, have been tested by recent weeks' events from the Quran burning to the murders of Afghan villagers and coalition troops, Panetta acknowledged. But he said he learned during this visit's meetings that "we were also very unified in our focus on achieving the mission" of ensuring Afghanistan never again becomes a terrorist safe haven.
That mission will only be achieved when Afghanistan can secure and govern itself, and everyone he spoke with on this visit shares that view, Panetta said.
In a statement following his meeting with Panetta today, Afghan President Hamid Karzai made reference to withdrawing international troops from Afghan towns and villages. A senior defense official traveling with Panetta, who also attended the meeting with Karzai, said the topic had come up and that both men agreed to work together and continue close consultation on such topics as the transition to Afghan security lead continues.
The official said he has attended many such meetings with Karzai, and today's session was "very, very positive." Karzai is understandably eager to assume full sovereignty in his country, the official said, and that is what the United States and other coalition partners want as well.
Pentagon Press Secretary George Little, who also attended the meeting, said the Afghans did not ask for any change in the transition timeline agreed to at the November 2010 NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal.
"The secretary has seen President Karzai's statement," Little said. "He believes it reflects President Karzai's strong interest in moving as quickly as possible to a fully independent and sovereign Afghanistan. The secretary also believes that we have made good progress thus far in both security gains and transition, and that it is important for us to remain focused on those efforts in the months ahead."
Panetta said his visit "really convinced" him coalition leaders and the Afghan government are responding positively to recent challenges. He added that he commended Karzai, Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Gen. Bismullah Muhammadi Khan on the order and control they maintained in the face of those challenges. That kind of leadership, he said, is "so important to the future security of this country."
Panetta said as security transition continues through 2012 and International Security Assistance Force troops first step back from a combat role and then largely draw down from Afghanistan in 2014, planning what happens up to and after that milestone is increasingly important.
"In the discussions I just completed with President Karzai and other leaders, we really did focus on strategy for the future" and what needs to happen up to the end of 2014 and beyond, the secretary said.
Both sides agree on the need for ongoing partnership between the United States and Afghanistan, Panetta said.
That will require a certain amount of U.S. military support well beyond 2014, he noted: in counterterrorism, in advising and assisting Afghan forces, and in helping the Afghan security forces maintain their operational skills.
The number, placement and tasks those troops will undertake depends on the strategic partnership agreement the two countries are now discussing, the secretary said. In talks with Karzai, he added, both agreed they would like to see that agreement drafted before May's NATO summit in Chicago.
All leaders he spoke with on this visit agreed that levels of violence are down and Afghan army and police are very involved in operations across their nation, Panetta said. The growing strength and capability of Afghan security forces in working effectively and professionally to defend and protect their people is absolutely essential to Afghanistan's ultimate self-governance, he added.
The war and the challenges will continue in Afghanistan over the coming months, as the spring and summer "fighting season" once again takes hold, the secretary noted. The key, he said, is "how we respond, and how we [can] confront those challenges and maintain forward progress."
"Afghanistan needs to be able to govern and secure itself," Panetta said. "We are very close to accomplishing that, but the key right now is to stay on that mission [and] not allow our frustrations and concerns to undermine the principal goal we're here to achieve."