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    Panetta Stresses Importance of Staying Course in Afghanistan

    U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks during a news conference after meeting with troops and Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan officials, at the airport in Kabul, March 15, 2012.
    U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks during a news conference after meeting with troops and Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan officials, at the airport in Kabul, March 15, 2012.
    Brian Padden

    In Kabul Thursday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai called for NATO forces to pull back from Afghan villages, following Sunday's killing of 16 civilians in southern Afghanistan, allegedly by a U.S. soldier.

    Karzai reportedly told U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that he wants the Afghan forces to take full control of the country's security in 2013 rather than 2014.

    But speaking to reporters in Kabul Thursday, the U.S. defense secretary said the U.S., NATO and the Afghan leadership are in agreement on the strategy to hand over security responsibility to Afghan security forces. He said control will gradually be handed over to Afghan forces beginning in 2013, culminating with the withdrawal of most American combat troops by the end of 2014.

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    “We are on the right path. I am absolutely convinced of that but the key right now is to stick to that path. And if we do anything precipitous to back away from that, I think that, in my mind, could very well jeopardize our mission,” said Panetta.

    He also said President Karzai accepted the U.S. military's decision to try the U.S. soldier accused of killing 16 Afghans, many of them women and children, under U.S. military law. The killing happened on Sunday near a military base in Kandahar.

    “I again pledged to him that we are proceeding with the full investigation here and that we will bring the individual involved to justice. And he accepted that and hoped that it could be a transparent process so that the Afghanistan people would see that the Unites States is indeed going to not only prosecute this individual, but ensure that he is held accountable,” Panetta said.

    Some members of the Afghan parliament had demanded that the soldier be tried in Afghanistan and were incensed to learn he had been moved late Wednesday to a U.S. military detention facility in Kuwait.

    The incident adds to the intense anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan following the inadvertent burning of Qurans at an American military base in February, which sparked a week of violent nationwide protests and deadly attacks on U.S. troops.

    Prospects for a broad political power sharing agreement to resolve the Afghan conflict also dimmed Thursday, with the Taliban announcing it was suspending peace talks with the United States. The Taliban also said any negotiations with the Afghan government were pointless and that none had taken place.

    Panetta said he remains optimistic, however, insisting progress is being made in improving the Afghan forces' operational capability. He also said he is confident the U.S. and Afghanistan will soon agree on a strategic partnership that will permit a reduced U.S. military presence after 2014 for counter-terrorism purposes and to support Afghan troops, if needed.

    Both sides recently overcame a major obstacle to the partnership when the U.S. agreed to transfer control of its main military detention center to Afghanistan. Panetta says they will soon come up with an agreement to end night raids by the U.S. military raids, which have been another issue of contention.

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