PAKTIKA, Afghanistan - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, standing less than 34 miles from the Pakistan border, told U.S. troops Wednesday they have reached a turning point in the war, even as he demanded that Islamabad must do more to secure its side of the border.
Visiting with forces in Paktika, Panetta asserted that, "I really think that for all the sacrifices that you're doing, the reality is that it is paying off and that we're moving in the right direction ... We're winning this very tough conflict here in Afghanistan."
However, his upbeat assessment of the war came against a backdrop of the eroding relations with Pakistan, which imposed a communications blackout on the U.S.-led coalition after NATO airstrikes killed two dozen Pakistani forces last month. And there has been an ongoing spate of high-profile attacks in Kabul and across the south, including one Wednesday that killed a local government official and two bodyguards in Helmand province.
While U.S. officials have suggested that there may be some move to thaw the frigid tensions, Panetta made it clear that the U.S. still wants Pakistan to go after the insurgents who are launching attacks against U.S. forces from sanctuaries on that side of the border.
"Ultimately, we've got to make sure that if we're going to secure this country (Afghanistan), the Pakistanis better damn well secure their country as well," Panetta told the troops.
Panetta's visit to Paktika comes as the country's rugged east, where insurgents cross back and forth from lawless areas of western Pakistan, takes on increasing importance following the weakening of the Taliban in its southern heartland over the past 18 months.
"Are there challenges out there? You're damn right there are challenges," Panetta said. "Are we able to take on those challenges? You're damn right we are."
More work to do
The Pentagon chief has been meeting with his commanders in Afghanistan for two days, and also took time out to address a gathering of the diplomatic corps at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. There, he seemed to back away a bit from his contention that the war was being won.
Panetta stressed that there was more work to do, saying it was "not to say that this mission is by any means accomplished — it's not."
U.S. military leaders, meanwhile, echoed Panetta's view that they have seen progress both in the south — the heartland of the Taliban insurgency — as well as in the east. They acknowledge, though, that there will be tough fighting in the east next year as the U.S. works to reverse gains made by militants who find sanctuary on the Pakistan side of the border.
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, who directs day-to-day military operations in Afghanistan, told reporters that he believes the Taliban have been handed a tactical defeat in the south, where troops now need to consolidate the gains. But he agreed that next year, as another 23,000 U.S. troops are pulled out of Afghanistan, the coalition and Afghan forces will have to make major gains in the east.
Scaparrotti and commanders in the east agreed that improved coordination with Pakistan is critical, and without improvement it will make the campaign in the region much more difficult next year.
On Tuesday, Marine Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said that U.S. troops will begin to move into the advisory role next year, stepping back from their current counterinsurgency mission with Afghan forces. Over time, U.S. and NATO forces would provide training and guidance, air support, and other assistance as the Afghan troops take the lead.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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