WASHINGTON Jan 10 U.S. Defense Secretary Leon
Panetta told visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Thursday
that the two countries had reached the "last chapter" in their
effort to establish a sovereign Afghanistan that can provide for
its own security.
After a formal welcoming ceremony at the Pentagon, Panetta
told Karzai that 2013 would mark an important turning point in
the war, with Afghan forces due to begin taking the lead role in
providing security across the country while coalition troops
offered support and training.
"We've come a long way towards a shared goal of establishing
a nation that you and we can be proud of, one that never again
becomes a safe haven for terrorism," Panetta said in remarks at
the start of meetings in his office. "Our partnership, forged
... through almost 11 years of shared sacrifice, is a key to our
ability to achieve the final mission."
Karzai's three-day visit to Washington follows a year of
rising strains on the U.S.-Afghan partnership, including a spate
of incidents in which Afghan military or police attacked and
killed U.S. or coalition troops. U.S. forces were involved in a
series of incidents that enraged Afghans, including burning
Korans, which touched off days of rioting.
Karzai's visit comes as the two countries are in the midst
of discussions on an agreement that would govern the role of any
U.S. forces in Afghanistan after most combat troops withdraw at
the end of 2014.
The Obama administration has been considering maintaining a
residual force of between 3,000 and 9,000 troops in Afghanistan
to conduct counterterror operations while providing some
training and assistance for Afghan troops.
But the administration said earlier this week it did not
rule out the possibility of a complete withdrawal of all U.S.
troops from Afghanistan after 2014.
While Karzai has been critical of U.S. troop activity in
Afghanistan, it is unclear how Afghan troops would perform
without U.S. helicopters, medical facilities, intelligence and
other military support activity, of which Afghanistan has very
Karzai, in remarks in Panetta's office, said he was
confident that during his trip Afghanistan and the United States
would be able to "work out a modality for a bilateral security
agreement to ensure the interests of Afghanistan and also the
interests of the United States."
The United States is insisting on immunity for any U.S.
troops that remain in Afghanistan. That unsettled question is
expected to figure in this week's talks and may come up at the
White House on Friday, when Karzai meets President Barack Obama.
Panetta thanked Karzai for visiting U.S. and Afghan wounded
at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center outside
Washington, and he noted that the visit followed 11 years of
war, blood, battle and sacrifice on both sides.
"After a long and difficult past, we finally are, I believe,
at the last chapter of establishing ... a sovereign Afghanistan
that can govern and secure itself for the future," Panetta said,
adding that continued cooperation would be key to completing the
Karzai expressed appreciation for years of support and
training of Afghan troops by the United States and coalition
"I assure you Mr. Secretary that Afghanistan will be able to
provide security for its people and to protect its forces. So
Afghanistan will not ever be threatened by terrorists from
across our border," Karzai said.