American Forces Press Service
KABUL, Afghanistan – Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta joined Afghan President Hamid Karzai here today to laud the progress that’s been made in Afghanistan as they conducted what Panetta called “very productive discussions” about ways to build on it.
Panetta, here for his second visit as defense secretary, said he believes 2011 will prove to be “a very important turning point in the war.”
“We have not won,” he said. “We have not completed this mission. But I do believe we are in the process of making significant progress here.”
Panetta noted the lowest levels of violence in five years, with the Taliban insurgency weakened to the point that it has not been able to conduct successful attacks or regain lost territory.
“There is no doubt that over the last two years, Afghan and international forces have been able to seize the momentum … from the Taliban insurgency and establish security in critical areas, including Taliban heartland in the south,” the secretary said.
Panetta noted that he visited U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan -- an area he said will continue to be a focus of efforts in the coming years -- earlier today to get a firsthand assessment of the situation from commanders and troops on the ground.
“I come away convinced that as we continue making important progress and building security, that we are moving closer to our goals of denying al-Qaida [and its affiliates] safe haven in this area to conduct attacks on the homeland,” he said.
Panetta also recognized the increasingly capable Afghan national security forces that
“are absolutely essential to the ultimate success of our efforts here.”
These forces, who Panetta said have sacrificed alongside their American and international counterparts, have set the stage for security transition in Afghanistan.
Panetta noted that based on Karzai’s transition plans announcement last month, half of the Afghan population will soon live under Afghan governance and security control.
This transition “represents the fact that we have now made important gains during the campaign,” Panetta said. “We are moving toward a strong Afghanistan that can govern and secure itself for the future.”
Particularly promising, he said, is the fact that these gains continue even as the United States begins the process of drawing down the first 10,000 of its surge forces.
“When we look at these achievements, clearly we are going in the right direction,” the secretary said.
Karzai said Afghanistan now is more stable and moving toward a better future. What’s left to be done, he said, is to extend individual security to protect the Afghan people from attacks.
Panetta agreed that despite the progress made, much work remains to be done.
“Are there challenges? Of course there are. Does the Taliban remain dangerous? Of course it is. Does this mean that we are going to continue to see high-profile attacks in the future? Yes we will,” the secretary said.
“But are we going in the right direction?” he continued. “Are we making significant progress here in Afghanistan? Yes we are.”
Looking to the future, Panetta offered assurance that the United States is committed to forging a long-term relationship with Afghanistan.
Afghanistan has the support of the United States, he said, and it also “has the backing of the region and the international community as it seeks to build a stronger and more stable country for the future.”
Expressing regret for Afghan as well as American lives lost in pursuit of this future, Panetta pledged that their sacrifices “will not be in vain.”
“Ultimately, we will achieve the goal of a sovereign and independent Afghanistan,” he said, “that can secure and govern itself -- one that will never allow al-Qaida and the Taliban to be able to establish a safe haven here from which to conduct attacks on America.”