U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told American troops in eastern Afghanistan the United States is winning the 10-year-old war against extremists in the country.
Panetta flew to a remote U.S. Military base to present valor award medals to soldiers and offer reassurances the troops are making what he called significant progress in the war against extremists.
"I really think that for all the sacrifice that you are doing, the reality is that it is paying off and that we are moving in the right direction, and we are winning this very tough conflict here in Afghanistan," he said.
Despite recent high-profile attacks by extremist groups, Panetta said Afghanistan is enjoying the most reduced levels of violence in five years, adding that U.S.-led NATO forces have weakened the Taliban to the point where the group has not conducted a successful attack to regain lost territory.
But Panetta said the mission has yet to be completed and much of eastern Afghanistan remains an area of concern for U.S. forces.
Troubled relations with Pakistan are complicating U.S. efforts to stabilize the region. Washington has accused Pakistan's security agency of supporting extremists who have launched attacks inside Afghanistan. Pakistan has recently closed off supply routes to U.S. forces following a recent NATO attack on the border that Pakistan says killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
Panetta, standing fewer than 60 kilometers from the Pakistani border as he delivered his message, called for Islamabad to do more to bring stability to the region. He described U.S.-Pakistan relations as difficult but necessary and important.
"We are continuing to work with them in the hope that we can establish that kind of relationship," he said. "We have got to do that because, ultimately, we have got to make sure that if we are going to secure this country, the Pakistanis had better damned well secure their country as well."
Panetta later met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The Afghan leader told reporters the 10-year war has brought overall stability to Afghanistan, but said much needs to be done before the Afghan people can enjoy peace and security.
“With regard to bringing personal security to the Afghan people, we have a journey to make and I hope that journey will be done sooner and successfully,” said Karzai.
The U.S. has begun drawing down its forces in Afghanistan, a process it expects to complete in 2014.
Following his Afghanistan visit, Panetta will stop in Baghdad to mark the end of the eight-year-old U.S. mission in Iraq.