Defense chief Panetta: Looming cuts would be ‘disastrous’

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But Mr. Panetta said that U.S. forces continue to make “good progress” fighting the Taliban, and that the rebel insurgency, though resilient, has been weakened.

“We have not seen them able to conduct any kind of organized attack to regain any territory that they’ve lost,” he said. “We’ve seen the levels of violence going down. We’ve seen an Afghan army that is much more capable at providing security.”

The secretary said he is still concerned about a high level of corruption in Afghan society and about Taliban safe havens in neighboring Pakistan. But he said that Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, the top allied commander in Afghanistan, “has laid out a plan that moves us in the direction of an Afghanistan that can truly govern and secure itself.”

“That is going to be our greatest safeguard to the potential of the Taliban ever coming back,” he said.

Mr. Panetta also repeated U.S. criticisms of Pakistan for convicting a doctor who helped find Osama bin Laden in that country, calling the 33-year prison term “disturbing” and saying Dr. Shakil Afridi “was not working against Pakistan.”

Dr. Afridi had run a vaccination program that helped the CIA collect DNA samples that confirmed bin Laden was in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad. Mr. Panetta said the treason conviction is casting a pall over the “complicated” relationship between the two countries.

“It’s an up-and-down relationship. There have been periods where we’ve had good cooperation, and they have worked with us.,” he said. “What they have done here does not help in the effort to try to re-establish a relationship between the United States and Pakistan.”

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