U.S. Defense secretary visits Afghanistan as violence spikes
Published: June 6, 2012 11:27PM
Updated: June 6, 2012 11:27PM
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U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta smiles while speaking during a press conference in New Delhi, India, on Wednesday, June 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Jim Watson, Pool)

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in Kabul to assess troop pullout plans in Afghanistan even as attacks on coalition forces by the Taliban and the Pakistan-based Haqqani network are escalating.

“There clearly has been an increase in the attacks,” Panetta told reporters accompanying him at the end of a week- long Asia trip. “We’ve seen a recent attack that was much more organized than what we have seen before, using a vehicle IED combined with suicide bombers,” he said, referring to improvised explosive devices.

The Pentagon had anticipated that attacks would increase over the next few months as it prepares to withdraw the additional troops President Barack Obama sent to Afghanistan in 2010 as part of his administration’s surge strategy, Panetta said. Still, Marine Corps General John Allen, the top coalition commander in the country, has “expressed concern at the renewed level of attacks,” said Panetta, who’s on his fourth visit to Afghanistan as defense secretary.

The U.S. faces multiple challenges as Obama seeks to end the 11-year war in Afghanistan. It must hold the international coalition together; train, equip and transfer security missions and logistical support to Afghan forces; and prevent a Taliban resurgence.

At the same time, it needs to secure Pakistan’s cooperation in halting cross-border attacks by the Taliban and the Haqqani network, reopening coalition supply lines, and at least tacitly accepting allied drone strikes on terrorist targets in Pakistan such as the one this week that killed al-Qaeda’s second-in- command.

Finally, the U.S. administration must reassure friends that it isn’t abandoning Afghanistan and foes that they can’t simply wait until America and its allies depart.

The American-led international coalition plans to pull out most of the 88,000 U.S. troops and their 40,000 counterparts from other nations by the end of 2014. Once the withdrawal is complete, “the Afghan war as we understand it is over,” Obama said last month. An unspecified number of U.S. troops would remain in training roles.

Panetta plans to meet with Allen, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and the Afghan defense minister, General Abdul Rahim Wardak.

In addition to the escalating attacks on coalition forces, the U.S. is concerned about corruption in the Afghan government and safe havens in Pakistan, Panetta said.

The U.S. continues to urge Pakistan to “take care of terrorists who reside” in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the mountainous border with Afghanistan in the northwest of the country, Panetta said. “We have not given up hope that Pakistanis are going to take action to control the safe havens.”

In discussions with U.S. officials, Pakistani Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani “continues to indicate a willingness to cooperate in that effort,” Panetta said. “We have to do as much as we can to urge Pakistan to take that on.”

Speaking yesterday in New Delhi, Panetta said achieving U.S. goals for Afghanistan “is going to be in large measure dependent on a Pakistan that can confront terrorism within their own borders.”

The U.S. is still negotiating with Pakistan in an effort to reopen routes used to transport military supplies to Afghanistan, Panetta said. Pakistan halted the transit after coalition air strikes in November killed 24 of its soldiers.

The U.S. also is urging traditional enemies India and Pakistan to improve their relations so the South Asian nations don’t turn Afghanistan into the battleground of a proxy war after 2014, Panetta said.

India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who met with Panetta in New Delhi, recognizes that danger and “has an interest in trying to pursue improving” ties with Pakistan, Panetta said.

Trade ties and military-to-military talks between India and Pakistan are improving, Panetta said.

In New Delhi, Panetta also met India’s Defense Minister A.K. Antony and National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon and urged them to “continue, and if possible expand” India’s efforts to train Afghan military and police units, he said.

About 30,000 Afghan forces already receive training in India as part of an agreement between the two countries. Pakistani officials, though, have expressed concern about Indian influence in Afghanistan.

The U.S. isn’t studying any alternatives to the U.S.-led training effort in Afghanistan after 2014, Panetta said yesterday in response to a question after speaking at an event in New Delhi organized by the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses. He said no effort is under way to organize a regional peace-keeping force led by the United Nations.

“We don’t have a Plan B because we don’t think we need a Plan B,” Panetta said. “Our goal is to continue to train and support and assist the Afghan army so they can be a permanent force.”

The continued presence of U.S. military trainers beyond 2014 is “additional insurance” against any weakening of Afghan capabilities, he said.