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Panetta in Afghanistan, Calls 2011 a ‘Turning Point’ December 14, 2011

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is on a surprise visit to Afghanistan, where he says 2011 will mark a turning point in the 10-year-old war.  

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in Kabul for a visit with troops and a first-hand assessment from the man who commands them, General John Allen.

Speaking on his way to the region, Panetta said he wants to see what troops have been able to accomplish in Afghanistan. “[The year] 2011 will mark a turning point with regards to the effort in Afghanistan. Our troops have been able to obviously reduce the levels of violence there. We’ve seen the lowest levels of violence in almost five years now. They are successful in securing some of the key areas in Afghanistan,” he said.

The United States expects to complete a drawdown of troops in the country by 2014.  The defense chief said the U.S.-led coalition has made gains against Taliban insurgents in most of the country.

Despite continuing insurgent attacks, he said U.S. forces are on their way to being able to hand over military and police control of the whole country to the Afghans on schedule. “Clearly I think Afghanistan is on a much better track in terms of our ability to eventually transition to an Afghanistan that can govern and secure itself,” he said.

Prospects for a smooth transition are being complicated by deteriorating relations with Pakistan, especially after a NATO-led attack on a border area last month killed 24 Pakistanis troops.  Pakistan responded by closing off a key supply routes for U.S. forces and moving air defense systems to its border with Afghanistan.

General Allen told reporters Tuesday in Kabul he has been reaching out to the Pakistanis in an effort to repair ties and restore cooperation along the Afghan border.  Allen said he spoke with his Pakistani counterpart, General Ashfaq Kayani, by telephone this week. “The outcome of the conversation was that we stated our mutual commitment to address any shortfalls that may have caused this event, and also to ensure that we work closely together because the border is always going to be there,” he said.

Panetta said a good relationship with Pakistan is crucial to winning the war in Afghanistan.

After Kabul, the U.S. Defense Secretary heads to Baghdad for a ceremony marking the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

During a stop in Djibouti earlier, Panetta said Washington’s attention is turning to the Horn of Africa and Yemen, where he said al-Qaida and other terrorist networks are moving in.  He said the U.S. relationship with Djibouti has developed into a very important partnership in this new phase of the counter-terrorism effort.   

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the process of drawing down, Panetta is touring the region to take stock of both conflicts.  He also plans a visit to Libya where U.S.-led NATO forces this year helped a popular revolution overthrow the government of the late leader Muammar Qadafi.

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