By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
KABUL, Afghanistan, Dec. 13, 2012 – Afghan President Hamid Karzai has accepted an invitation from President Barack Obama to visit Washington in January, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told reporters here today.
A U.S. official said discussion during the Washington visit will include the role the United States will play in the country after 2014.
The meeting will also be an important opportunity to discuss implementing the strategic partnership that Obama and Karzai signed in May, the official added.
Discussion will include progress made in negotiating the Bilateral Security Agreement that would replace the current Status of Forces Agreement, and lay out ground rules for a potential U.S. military presence after 2014, the official said, along with an Afghan-led peace process and the future of Afghanistan’s security forces.
As Obama has made clear, the official added, any U.S. presence after the end of the NATO mission would be at the invitation of the Afghan government and aimed at training Afghan forces and targeting the remnants of al-Qaida.
Panetta told reporters this visit is his eighth to Afghanistan in the last four years.
“I personally have witnessed the fact that Afghanistan is moving in the right direction towards achieving the sovereignty and independence it has always desired,” the secretary said.
“Through the course of these visits and many other consultations, President Karzai and I have built a friendship and a sustained dialogue that allows us to discuss the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead,” he added.
Panetta strongly affirmed that the United States supports the aspirations of the Afghan people to be secure and self-governing, adding that forces from 49 countries are working together to achieve that goal.
“Over the last four years we have experienced the ups and downs of war and the challenges associated with that effort, he said, “and yet we have also seen people working together on the ground -- Afghans, Americans, our ISAF nations -- overcoming those challenges.”
Panetta said their sacrifice, dedication and commitment have turned the tide of war.
“We now have the opportunity to make these gains lasting. We must be brave enough to seize the opportunity by pressing ahead together with a campaign plan,” he said.
The purpose of the military effort is to build the Afghan National Security Forces’ capabilities so they can assume full responsibility for security, the defense secretary said.
That strategy “continues to have the full support of the United States and of the international community. The ANSF are out in the front lines as we speak, fighting and dying every day to protect their fellow citizens,” Panetta said.
“Last night I had the opportunity to meet with all of our U.S. commanders throughout Afghanistan,” the secretary added. “To a person they said the Afghan forces are proving they can do the job.”
Continued coalition support for the Afghan forces will include a focus on leadership development, an effort to build their planning, logistics and procurement capabilities, and training that will allow them to provide larger and more complex operations on the battlefield, Panetta said.
Recent progress on security in Afghanistan “makes it all the more important to confront broader strategic challenges that we face, and we are doing that,” he said.
Both nations are working more closely to try to get Pakistan to confront the challenge of terrorism and insurgency in safe havens across the border, Panetta said.
The rule of law must be strengthened and the nations must work together “to reduce corruption and promote the quality of governance that will support these hard-won security gains,” he added.
“Together with the international community we must promote sustainable economic development, education [and] health care to give the Afghan people the better future they deserve,” Panetta said.
For the first time since 9/11, “we have a chance to achieve the mission that we are embarked upon,” he said, adding that this will require continued commitment, perseverance, partnership and sacrifice on the part of all nations.