- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 13, 2011

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN | Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta arrived in Afghanistan on Tuesday to meet with commanders, as the U.S. grapples with an eroding relationship with Pakistan that has complicated supply routes and helped fuel insurgents in the east.

While he was upbeat about security progress in Afghanistan, Mr. Panetta was likely to hear some somber news from commanders as they wrestle with the withdrawal of 23,000 more troops in the coming year, the transition of security to Afghan forces and the near collapse of coordination with Islamabad along critical portions of the border.

His visit is the second stop on a holiday tour that began in Africa and will take him to Iraq, Libya and Turkey.

Mr. Panetta will be the first U.S. defense chief to visit Libya, which is emerging from an eight-month civil war. In Iraq, he will participate in a ceremony that will shut down the U.S. military mission there after nearly nine years of war.

Mr. Panetta’s arrival in Kabul comes on the heels of Pakistan’s decision to move air-defense systems to the border with Afghanistan, part of its response to the NATO airstrikes last month that killed two dozen Pakistani forces.

Pakistan also has closed two border crossings that are part of key supply routes into Afghanistan and recalled its troops from two border coordination posts. The supply routes carry about 30 percent of the fuel, food and other items needed for troops in Afghanistan.

Mr. Panetta said U.S. troops in Afghanistan will get the supplies they need. But the plummeting relationship with Pakistan complicates an already difficult war just as the Obama administration is trying to boast of security gains across broad swaths of the country.

“I think 2011 will make a turning point with regards to the effort in Afghanistan,” Mr. Panetta told reporters traveling with him to Kabul.

He cited lower levels of violence and the successful turnover of portions of the country to Afghan control.

“Clearly, I think Afghanistan is on a much better track in terms of our ability to eventually transition to an Afghanistan that can govern and secure itself,” he said.

Mr. Panetta said he has been reassured by Marine Gen. John Allen, the top overall commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, that military operations are continuing along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

He said Gen. Allen has reached out to Pakistani commanders to try to rebuild relations and cross-border communications that are vital in the rugged, mountainous region.

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