Panetta in Kabul ahead of Trip to Iraq, Turkey, Libya

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta arrived in Kabul on Tuesday to reaffirm America's commitment to Afghanistan as Washington starts to withdraw combat troops and hand over security to Afghan forces.

The Pentagon chief, who says violence is falling in the country where the United States has been at war with the Taliban for 10 years, is slated to meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Defense Secretary Abdul Rahim Wardak.

His discussions will also include the situation in neighboring Pakistan, where America's fragile alliance plunged into further crisis when NATO air strikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border on November 26.

"I think 2011 will mark a turning point with regards with the efforts to Afghanistan," Panetta told journalists on the flight to Kabul, his second trip to the country since taking up his post in July.

"Troops have been able to reduce the levels of violence there. They are successful in securing some of the key areas in Afghanistan. There's greater success in the Afghan military and police."

The United States has announced the withdrawal of 10,000 of its 100,000 troops by the end of the year, while 23,000 others will leave the country by the end of September 2012 after the summer "fighting season".

The number corresponds to the 33,000 "surge" troops ordered in by President Barack Obama in late 2009 in a bid to reverse the Taliban insurgency, defeat al-Qaida and quicken an end to the war.

Recent media reports, not denied by the Pentagon, say the focus of the U.S. mission is turning increasingly to building up the Afghan army to take on more responsibility in the fight against the Taliban.

Panetta welcomed the "significant achievement" of a second phase of transition from NATO to Afghan security control, which was launched this month in conjunction with the planned exit of all NATO combat troops in 2014.

In the second wave, Afghan forces will take charge of six provinces, seven provincial capitals and more than 40 districts, including three in the southern province of Helmand, one of most deadly in the conflict.

More than half of Afghans live in an area included in either the first or second phase of transition, according to Karzai.

"That of course requires greater and greater efforts by the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) as they're moving to the lead," a senior U.S. defense official said, speaking anonymously.

During his two-day visit, the former CIA director will also meet General John Allen, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, troops and U.S. embassy staff.

Panetta said it was important to reach out to Pakistan, where U.S. officials want Islamabad to dismantle Afghan militant havens.

"It's been said a number of times that ultimately we can't win the war in Afghanistan without being able to win in our relationship with Pakistan as well," said Panetta.

"It's going to be important, as we continue to move and progress in our efforts in Afghanistan, that we continue to outreach to Pakistan. This has been a difficult and complicated relationship but it is an important relationship.

Pakistan shut the U.S. supply line into landlocked Afghanistan on November 26, saying that the blockade could last weeks longer, and forced Americans to leave an air base widely reported to have been a hub for CIA drones.

U.S. officials have accused Pakistan of supporting the Afghan Taliban and its Haqqani faction, whose leaders are based on Pakistani soil.

"They have provided cooperation in areas that have been important to us and at the same time we've had some serious difficulties with regards to the operations that involve groups in the FATA (Pakistan's tribal belt) and groups along the border."

Pakistan called the November 26 attack deliberate. U.S. commanders deny it was intentional. U.S. investigators are due to submit a report on December 23.

"In the end Pakistan and the U.S. do share the same concerns with regards to terrorism," said Panetta.

The Pentagon chief, who made a brief stop in Djibouti before arriving in Kabul, will next travel to Iraq, Turkey and Libya.

Source: Agence France Presse, Associated Press

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