Panetta Deals With Fallout From NATO Attack

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is in the Afghan capital Kabul to meet with Afghan officials, and try to smooth relations with Pakistan. His trip follows a deadly attack on Pakistani troops by a U.S. drone based in Afghanistan. In response, Pakistan has blocked two routes used to supply U.S. troops.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Let's get a look, now, at two war-torn countries. One that Americans are leaving, and another that they would like to leave. One is Iraq whereas, we'll hear in a moment, departing U.S. troops leave behind some unresolved conflicts.

INSKEEP: The other is Afghanistan, which Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is visiting today. He's called this year a turning point for the U.S. mission, though it will be more years before U.S. troops can turn over responsibility for security.

MONTAGNE: For more, we reached NPR's Kabul bureau chief, Quil Lawrence. Good morning.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: The secretary of defense arrived yesterday, there in Afghanistan. Who has Leon Panetta met with so far and what has been discussed?

LAWRENCE: This morning, he met with his Afghan counterpart, the Afghan Defense Minister, Rahim Wardak. And we know he's met with the U.S. ambassador here and commander of U.S. and NATO forces. He scheduled to meet later on with President Hamid Karzai.

And remark so far have been focused on the ongoing transition to Afghan forces here. They're saying that more than 50 percent of the country, geographically, has now been switched over to Afghan control. Of course, many of the most violent areas remain under U.S. and NATO control.

Panetta says that violence in Afghanistan is reaching a five-year low. But it's hard to tell which metrics he's referring to exactly. Attacks against U.S. troops are certainly down from last year, but Afghan and international observers say that civilian deaths from the conflict are actually worse than ever.

MONTAGNE: And as we - we've heard so much about Pakistan as pretty key to what happens in Afghanistan. And U.S.-Pakistan relations were dealt a blow by a NATO helicopter attack that killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers this last month. The circumstances are still in dispute between the two countries. But is the secretary dealing with some of the fallout from that attack in this visit?

LAWRENCE: Almost certainly. We have heard the news this morning that General John Allen, the U.S. commander and commander of NATO forces here, was able to reestablish what used to be regular phone contacts with General Kayani, his counterpart in Pakistan. That may be the beginning of a thaw that could allow relations - at least from soldier to soldier on each side of this border - to resume.

So far, the border is still close to NATO supply trucks, which means huge amounts of supplies are coming in by air, or through expensive land routes that come in through the north.

Bigger picture questions are whether Pakistan is going to assist in some sort of negotiations, long-term, to make peace in Afghanistan. Most everyone acknowledges that this conflict won't really end until Pakistan is on board, and that's got to be on the secretary's mind.

MONTAGNE: And Quil, we've been hearing a lot these days about the troop withdrawal from Iraq. What about Afghanistan? I mean, a high of over 100,000 American troops has already been brought down there - will be fewer than 70,000 by next September - but that's still a lot of troops. What's going on with that?

LAWRENCE: Well, President Obama has said in the past, that there will be a steady withdrawal until combat operations ended in 2014. We've heard rumors from the White House that they might try to accelerate that withdrawal. We've heard reports from here in Kabul, that American commanders want to slow it down. So it's a bit confusing.

In Kabul, they seem intent on reassuring the Afghans that America isn't abandoning Afghanistan. But back in the States, it seems the focus, more, is on assuring Americans that this war is winding down.

Either way we have no clear answer how many of those 68,000 or so troops will stay on past 2014 - maybe change hats and become trainers here in Afghanistan after 2014, for as long as the country invites them to stay. That's also going to be a subject that President Karzai will be discussing with Secretary Panetta - a strategic partnership agreement - which will determine how many troops, foreign troops, are invited to stay in Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: We've been speaking with NPR's Quil Lawrence in Kabul. Thanks very much.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Renee.

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