American Forces Press Service
KABUL. Afghanistan, Dec. 13, 2011 – Recognizing what he called a pivotal year in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta arrived here today to thank U.S. service members for their role in reversing momentum against the Taliban, and to assure Afghan leaders of the United States’ continuing commitment as transition moves forward.
Panetta is scheduled to meet with President Hamid Karzai and Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak to express the United States’ commitment to supporting Afghan national security forces as they assume increasing responsibility for Afghanistan’s security.
During his visit, the secretary said he also seeks views of conditions on the ground from Marine Gen. John R. Allen, commander of U.S. and NATO forces there, and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan C. Crocker. Afghan and coalition troops have made significant progress reversing the insurgency in the south and will be paying more attention to the eastern provinces, a senior defense official said, adding that Panetta is expected to meet with front-line troops.
Stopping in Djibouti before arriving here, Panetta praised the leadership of Allen and Crocker and the relationships they have established in Afghanistan that have allowed U.S. and Afghan troops to move ahead against a weakened Taliban and to create better security.
Panetta told reporters he looked forward to seeing “the results of what our troops have been able to accomplish” during 2011, which he expects to mark “a turning point with regards to our effort in Afghanistan.”
“Our troops have been able to … reduce the levels of violence there. We have seen the lowest levels of violence in almost five years there now,” the secretary said.
“They are successful in securing some of the key areas in Afghanistan,” he added, and in helping the Afghan security forces make increased progress.
Panetta is expected to discuss progress toward transitioning full responsibility for the country’s stability by the end of 2014, as agreed to at the Lisbon Summit in November 2010, a senior defense official traveling with him told reporters.
The secretary noted a milestone toward that goal, with Afghan security forces in the midst of assuming security control for 18 areas under the second phase of the transition plan. This effort, which will continue through December and into early 2012, ultimately will bring 50 percent of the Afghan population under Afghan security and governance, he said.
“That is a significant achievement, and I will have a chance to see that firsthand,” Panetta said. “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.”
Panetta’s visit comes as the United States is working to speed up the training and deployment of Afghan forces, and after a national assembly conducted by Karzai endorsed a long-term security agreement with the United States.
The United States has about 94,000 service members in Afghanistan, a senior defense official said, and is on track to complete a drawdown of 10,000 troops by the year’s end.
President Barack Obama announced last summer that the first 10,000 of the 33,000 surge troops deployed to Afghanistan last year would return home this year. The rest of the surge forces are slated to redeploy next year