US is winning in Afghanistan - Panetta
Fob Sharana - US defence chief Leon Panetta told US troops on Wednesday they were winning the 10-year war in Afghanistan, during a visit focused on handing security to Afghans as US troops withdraw.
Panetta is in Afghanistan to review the war effort with the US, which is on track to recall 33 000 troops by the end of the next year and is shifting its focus to an advisory role in training Afghan security forces.
"We're moving in the right direction and we're winning this very tough conflict," he told troops at Forward Operating Base Sharana, 56km from the Pakistan border, in the eastern province of Paktika.
In October, the Pentagon said that Taliban attacks were down for the first time in five years but that insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan were feeding violence on the border and threatening the war effort.
"Are there challenges out there? You're damn right, there are challenges. Are we gonna be able to take on those challenges? You're damn right we will," Panetta told the troops.
"Ultimately here in Afghanistan, we will be able to establish a country that is able to govern and secure itself, we will make sure that the Taliban will never be able to find safe haven here, that al-Qaeda will never again be able to find safe havens here."
Panetta said it was important to make sure Pakistan could secure its side of the border.
"The Haqqanis that you fight here in this area come across the border, attack here and go back into the safe havens over there. They [the Pakistanis] have a responsibility to deal with those safe havens," he said.
"Bottom line is that it is complicated, it is complex, we have some difficult issues to deal with but at the same time it's important to maintain a relationship with Pakistan because we are confronting a common enemy.
"We've got to make sure that if we're gonna secure this country, the Pakistanis better damn well secure their country as well."
America's alliance with Pakistan is in crisis over Nato strikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border on November 26.
Islamabad has shut the US supply line into landlocked Afghanistan and forced Americans to leave a base widely reported to have been a hub for CIA drones.
As the US draws the curtain on its eight-year venture in Iraq, Washington is determined to bring an end to the Afghan war as soon as possible.
Lieutenant General Curtis Scaparrotti, ISAF operational commander, said that the main effort was likely to move from the south of the country, where gains still need to be "consolidated", to the east at some point in 2012.
Panetta meets President Hamid Karzai later on Wednesday and earlier met Defence Secretary Abdul Rahim Wardak to discuss the security transfers, taking place in conjunction with the planned exit of Nato combat troops by the end of 2014.
"My hope is that we maintain a long-term relationship with Afghanistan, that we don't just simply pick up and get out. We spilled too much blood here," he told the troops.
The US is withdrawing 10 000 troops this year, leaving 91 000 on the ground into 2012. Another 23 000 are to leave by the end of September 2012.
That will mark the end of the "surge" ordered by US President Barack Obama in late 2009 in a bid to reverse the Taliban insurgency, defeat al-Qaeda and speed up an end to the war, and will leave 68 000 US forces on the ground.
The US commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, gave no date but said that military operations would shift to a more advisory role, envisaging the introduction of special "advisory forces" embedded with Afghan troops.
He also indicated there could be a thaw with Pakistan, following a telephone conversation with Pakistan army chief General Ashfaq Kayani.
Allen said they discussed restoring co-ordination along the border in the hope that the two countries could "move on" from the incident.
Karzai recently announced a second phase of transition which will see Afghans take charge of six provinces, seven provincial capitals and more than 40 districts, including three in the southern province of Helmand, one of the most deadly in the conflict.
Despite the tight timetable, the military and the UN disagree over the extent to which violence is really falling in Afghanistan.
The world body said the number of civilians who were killed increased by 15% in the first six months of this year.