By Cheryl Pellerin
After spending time with U.S. troops and officials in Kuwait, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has landed here today to thank troops for their exceptional service, especially during the holidays when it's harder to be far from family and friends.
This is Panetta's fifth trip to Afghanistan as defense secretary and his eighth trip to the war-torn nation in the last four years.
"My main goal is to thank the troops," Panetta said, "but beyond that it's to consult with military commanders, to consult with leadership in Afghanistan, talk to President [Hamid] Karzai and be able to get a better sense of just exactly what's happening in Afghanistan."
The secretary said the campaign is on a better path than it was four years ago despite real challenges that remain in the region.
"We've got a strong campaign plan in place supported by the United States and [the International Security Assistance Force], confirmed by the NATO nations [during the NATO summit this summer in] Chicago," Panetta said, adding that a strategic partnership agreement signed June 1 by President Barack Obama and Karzai "pretty much affirms our enduring presence in Afghanistan in the long run."
Violence levels have trended downward in the last two years after five years of steady increases beginning in 2006, the secretary noted, and the Taliban have been unable to regain territory they've lost over the past few years.
"On insider attacks, an area that remains a concern, we have a downward trend, and populated areas have grown more secure," Panetta said. "In 2012, violence dropped significantly in Kabul, [by] 22 percent, and in Kandahar by almost 62 percent."
The Afghan national security force is becoming more capable, the secretary said. They have reached the 352,000 end-strength goal on schedule and now are in the lead in about 85 percent of the operations. They're also leading some large-scale operations, he added.
Seventy-five percent of the Afghan population now lives in areas that are undergoing transition to Afghan security, Panetta said, and 100 percent of the population should be in transition by mid-2013.
Progress in other areas includes health care and education, he added.
"Eighty-five percent of the population in Afghanistan now has ready access to health care, compared to 9 percent in 2002," the secretary said. "[And] more than 8 million students are enrolled in schools, compared to 1 million in 2002, and 35 percent of the kids in school are girls."
Significant challenges remain, he said, "involving governance, continuing corruption, the problem with insurgent safe havens in Pakistan, economic challenges and a resilient Taliban that continues to challenge our security in Afghanistan."
On the problem of enemy safe havens in Pakistan, the secretary said, the Pakistani government understands. "I think as a result of recent meetings with Pakistan that we are more encouraged with the fact that they want to take steps to try to limit the terrorist threat within their own country and the threat that goes across the border."
Panetta said his sense is that the Pakistanis are in a better place.
"They understand their responsibility," he added. "They certainly have cooperated with us in a better fashion with regards to opening up the [ground lines of communication between Pakistan and Afghanistan]."
The Pakistanis also have expressed a greater interest in helping with reconciliation of Taliban soldiers into Afghan society, and Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of the Pakistani army, has indicated a willingness to try to put more pressure on the terrorist safe havens, the secretary added.
"As always, actions have to speak louder than words," he said. "But I do believe that they're in a better place in the sense that they understand the kind of threat that they should deal with."
As security improves and the Afghan national security force steps into the lead, "the opportunity to focus on these challenges and hopefully strengthen governance and the rule of law and the Afghan economy is a goal we're after," Panetta said.
The secretary said he looks forward to getting a firsthand view of Afghanistan's status by speaking with ISAF Commander Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen and other commanders, and with the Afghan leadership.
"This will help me as we set the groundwork for the decisions that have to be made by President Obama with regard to the enduring presence [in Afghanistan]," Panetta added.
The secretary said he and others will present options to Obama for the nature of the enduring presence in Afghanistan, , "and hopefully he'll make a decision within these next few weeks."
Afterward, Panetta added, the president's decision will allow Allen to figure out what the drawdown in Afghanistan ought to be and over what period of time.