U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta speaks to soldiers with the Army's… (Pablo Martinez Monsivais,…)
Reporting from Forward Operating Base Sharana and — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Wednesday that security gains seen in parts of Afghanistan over the last year represented a "turning point" in the decade-old conflict.
"We're moving in the right direction and we're winning this very tough conflict in Afghanistan," he told troops of the U.S. Army's 172nd Infantry Brigade at Forward Operating Base Sharana, about 30 miles from the Afghan-Pakistani border.
U.S. officials generally have not explicitly claimed to be winning the conflict, mindful of insurgent attacks that continue to exact a heavy civilian toll, the stubborn resilience of the Taliban and other militant groups, Washington's deteriorating relations with Pakistan and the political woes of the administration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Instead, over the last year, American commanders have cited significant progress against the insurgency, but with the caveat that the gains are fragile and potentially reversible.
A year ago, former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates also asserted on a visit to Kabul, the Afghan capital, that the war was moving in the right direction. But some of the troops listening to Panetta on Wednesday still seemed unconvinced.
One soldier asked whether the Afghan government would collapse once U.S. forces withdrew. Others asked skeptical questions about Karzai, and whether Pakistan would ever crack down on militant groups that use its territory as a springboard for attacks on Western troops in Afghanistan.
Forward Operating Base Sharana is in Paktika province, sitting astride infiltration routes used by militants to move men and weapons into Afghanistan from Pakistan. Panetta pinned Purple Heart medals on a dozen members of the 172nd Infantry Brigade wounded since it arrived last summer.
Panetta sought to reassure the soldiers that troop withdrawals ordered by the White House did not mean the Obama administration was walking away from Afghanistan. "All of the blood we have shed here has not been shed in vain," he said.
Asked later about his assertion that the United States was winning, Panetta said, "We have not won. We have not completed this mission, but I do believe we are making significant progress."
Col. Edward T. Bohnemann, commander of the 172nd, said Paktika had seen an even steeper drop in insurgent attacks than in previous years when winter weather set in.
But he noted that efforts to choke off the flow of militants have been hampered by Pakistan's move to reduce cross-border coordination with his unit since 24 Pakistani troops were killed last month, reportedly by a mistaken U.S. helicopter attack.
"There is not a lot of cross-border coordination," he said. "I would always like to see the lines of operation open up."
Pakistan has also closed two border crossings used by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to move supplies into Afghanistan. So far, the alliance's forces have described the cutoff as militarily insignificant, but officials acknowledge that the blockade will cause problems if it drags on.
Coinciding with Panetta's visit were fresh reminders of ongoing violence across the country. A district chief who crusaded against drug trafficking in Afghanistan's poppy heartland was killed Wednesday in a roadside bombing, along with two bodyguards.
The slain official was identified by Afghan authorities as Massoud Khan. His district has traditionally been a major poppy-producing area in the southern province of Helmand, which is itself the epicenter of the country's lucrative drug trade. He was killed as he was returning home from a meeting in a neighboring district to coordinate counter-narcotics strategy with tribal elders.
A provincial spokesman, Daoud Ahmadi, said three people in Khan's entourage were injured, two Afghan policemen and an Afghan intelligence agent.
Although the Taliban movement has suffered military setbacks in Helmand and in neighboring Kandahar province, its fighters have demonstrated the continuing ability to carry out assassinations of local officials and tribal elders who cooperate with the Afghan government. The bulk of such targeted killings have taken place in southern Afghanistan.
Afghan and international counter-narcotics officials have expressed concern that drug trafficking, a major source of income for the insurgency, will rise sharply as the international troop presence diminishes.
NATO forces are looking to wind down their combat mission in 2014, with Afghan troops gradually assuming security responsibilities.
Times staff writers Cloud and King reported from Forward Operating Base Sharana and Kabul, respectively.