U.S., Afghanistan discuss "last chapter" in war aims: Panetta

Thu Jan 10, 2013 8:00pm EST
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By David Alexander

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Afghan President Hamid Karzai discussed on Thursday the "last chapter" in building a sovereign Afghanistan that can provide its own security, including the nature of U.S. involvement after combat troops withdraw in 2014.

Panetta said he and Karzai made "very good progress" on the issues they discussed, but he declined to say whether they had agreed on the size of any residual U.S. force that would remain in Afghanistan to do counterterrorism operations and training once combat troops withdraw.

Panetta said both sides were committed to the goals approved at the NATO summit in Chicago in May, which calls for a continuing effort by members of the alliance to train, advise and assist Afghan forces. Karzai is scheduled to meet President Barack Obama on Friday for more talks on the remaining issues.

The Obama administration has been considering a residual force of between 3,000 and 9,000 troops in Afghanistan to conduct counterterrorism operations while providing training and assistance for Afghan forces. But the administration said this week it did not rule out a complete withdrawal after 2014.

While Karzai has been critical of U.S. troop activity in Afghanistan, it is unclear how Afghan forces would perform without U.S. helicopters, medical facilities, intelligence and other military support, of which Afghanistan has very little.

"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 told Karzai after a welcoming ceremony at the Pentagon that included an honor guard and 21-gun salute.

Panetta said 2013 would mark an important step in the war, with Afghans due to take over the lead role for security across the country.

"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. "Our partnership, forged ... through almost 11 years of shared sacrifice, is a key to our ability to achieve the final mission."   Continued...

President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai (L-R) and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stand for a full honors welcome at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, January 10, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY)