US will stand by Afghanistan, Panetta tells Karzai
The United States sought to assure Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Thursday that it would remain committed to his country even as US officials weigh a major withdrawal of American forces.
After an elaborate military ceremony for Karzai outside the Pentagon, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told his "distinguished visitor" that more than 10 years of war had paved the way for Afghanistan to stand on its own.
"After a long and difficult past, we finally are, I believe, at the last chapter of establishing a sovereign Afghanistan that can govern and secure itself for the future," Panetta said.
"We've come a long way towards a shared goal of establishing a nation that you and we can be proud of, one that never again becomes a safe haven for terrorism."
He also offered Karzai assurances that the future of the two countries was now entwined.
"We have sacrificed together -- that has created a bond that will not be broken in the future," Panetta said.
Since US-led troops toppled the Taliban in 2001 after the September 11 attacks, the Afghan president has had a stormy relationship with his US allies, and officials here want to demonstrate Washington's full-fledged support.
The talks come as President Barack Obama, newly elected to a second term, charts a plan to pull most of the 66,000 US troops out of Afghanistan -- well down from a high of about 100,000.
The United States and its NATO allies have already agreed to withdraw combat troops by the end of 2014, but questions remain on a US training and security role after that.
Throughout his visit, Karzai is expected to push for a substantial US military presence in Afghanistan after 2014.
But some White House officials favor only a light footprint of several thousand troops, and Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, even suggested Tuesday the United States might pull out all of its troops.
US military officers privately acknowledged those comments about a total withdrawal were primarily designed as a tactic in negotiations with Kabul.
Karzai was also due to meet later Thursday with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for talks and an official dinner at the State Department, before a White House summit on Friday with Obama.
Among the issues topping the agenda at the State Department are progress on reconciliation talks with the Taliban, as well as the distribution of US aid to Afghanistan.
"We have had some modest steps forward in recent months, including a commitment by Pakistan to support Afghan reconciliation," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Karzai has also pressed for more US assistance to go directly into Afghan coffers, instead of being distributed via non-governmental and aid organizations.
"We've made a pledge that about 50 percent ought to go through the Afghan government," Nuland said earlier this week. But she stressed that this was "tied to our expectation that the Afghan government will in turn meet the commitments... with regard to continuing to make progress on corruption, on transparency, on accountability."
For his part, Karzai thanked Panetta for the US military's contributions and for the red-carpet ceremony, saying he was hopeful Washington and Kabul would work out an agreement allowing a future US military role beyond 2014.
"Afghanistan will, with the help that you provide, be able to provide security to its people and to protect its borders; so Afghanistan would not ever again be threatened by terrorists from across our borders," he said.
Karzai also voiced confidence the two countries can "work out a modality for a bilateral security agreement that will ensure the interests of Afghanistan and also the interests of the United States."