By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
KABUL, Afghanistan, Dec. 13, 2012 – Over two days in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has met with U.S. and Afghan leaders here and in Kandahar, gathering information he says will help inform the decision President Barack Obama will soon make on troop levels there after 2014.
Last night here Panetta spent an hour-long meeting with Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan.
Afterward, Panetta and Allen attended a dinner with other military leaders. The event was closed to press but according to a pool report Panetta and Allen each made comments while photographs were being taken before dinner.
Panetta walked around the table, shaking hands with each general officer in attendance, including Army Maj. Gen. Anthony Thomas, commanding general at Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan; Army Maj. Gen. William C. Mayville, ISAF Regional Command-East commander; Army Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, commander of the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan; Army Maj. Gen. Robert B. Abrams, commander of ISAF Regional Command-South and others.
Allen said the leaders here were honored to have Panetta with them for a candid conversation and to hear the secretary’s guidance and views.
Panetta wished them all the best for the holidays, adding that the people of the United States appreciate their service and sacrifice.
The secretary said he traveled to Afghanistan to understand the “situation on the ground” and plans to meet with Afghan leaders in advance of President Obama’s upcoming decision about future troop levels in post-2014 Afghanistan.
This morning, Panetta met with Afghan Minister of Defense Bismillah Khan Mohammadi and Afghan Interior Minister Mujtaba Patang here, then flew to Kandahar Air Field to meet with the leadership of Regional Command-South, including Abrams.
Afterward the secretary spoke with and took questions from troops who serve at RC-South headquarters.
The RC-South area of responsibility includes Kandahar, Uruzgan, Zabul and Daykundi provinces. The U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division soldiers at headquarters are joined by troops from NATO member nations Albania, Bulgaria, Canada, France, Romania, Slovakia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Non-NATO member nations Australia, Jordan and Singapore also have troops there.
Panetta stood in near-freezing temperatures with the troops around him, talking about the progress made in Afghanistan.
“As far as I’m concerned, 2011 was a real turning point. We've seen levels of violence go down. We've seen that the Taliban has found it almost impossible to regain any of the territory that they lost during that period,” he said.
The Afghan army now conducts 85 percent of patrols, he said.
“That's moving it in the right direction,” Panetta said. “They're taking over more and more of the responsibility, which has to happen if we're eventually going to have an Afghanistan that can secure and govern itself.”
Every country that has troops in Afghanistan has spilled blood over nearly 11 years to complete the mission there, the secretary said.
“The bottom line is that those sacrifices -- all of those sacrifices -- are not in vain,” Panetta said. “We have made good progress in achieving the mission that we're embarked on, and it's because of all of you.”
“That's why I'm here -- to say thank you for all of your service and for your sacrifice. Thank you for giving back -- giving back in duty is the kind of service that is at the heart of our strength,” he added.
“Military strength, as far as I'm concerned … none of that would be worth a damn without the men and women in uniform who serve this country. You are the real strength of our military power,” Panetta said.
In response to a question from one of the troops, Panetta said his proudest achievements as defense secretary include working with the Joint Chiefs and other military leaders to formulate a new defense strategy for the future, and helping open up service in the military to anyone who wants to serve by expanding roles for women and in 2011 ending the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.
“I think that when it comes to serving the United States of America, anybody who wants to serve this country ought to have the opportunity to do it,” he said.
After Panetta and his group left Kandahar and returned to Kabul, insurgents detonated a vehicle bomb near Kandahar Airfield, killing one service member and wounded three others and several Afghans.