By David S. Cloud and Laura King, Tribune Washington Bureau –
KABUL, Afghanistan — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, paying a brief visit to the Afghan capital, said Thursday that the United States was reaching “the limit of our patience” with neighboring Pakistan’s sheltering of insurgents who cross the border to attack Western troops and Afghans alike.
Coinciding with Panetta’s stopover, Afghan President Hamid Karzai cut short a trip to China to signal anger and frustration over the deaths of 18 civilians in what Afghan officials said was an errant U.S. airstrike a day earlier. Panetta had already left the country by the time Karzai returned.
Panetta’s visit, his fourth as defense secretary, came as the American military presence in Afghanistan is poised to diminish considerably. By the end of the summer, another 23,000 American troops are to head home, reducing the U.S. forces to about 68,000 personnel — a schedule that Panetta said he expected to hold.
The drumbeat of criticism of Pakistan echoed statements earlier in Panetta’s nine-day Asian tour.
Relations between Islamabad and Washington have been marked by rancor over an intensive campaign of U.S. drone strikes and the continuing deadlock over a deal that would allow NATO supply convoys to transit Pakistani territory. Pakistan stopped the flow of supplies after an errant U.S. airstrike in November killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the country’s border with Afghanistan.
Speaking to reporters, Panetta declared that the U.S. would take action to protect its troops from attacks by Pakistan-based groups such as the Haqqani network, a Taliban offshoot.
“Let me be very clear,” he said. “Anybody who attacks U.S. soldiers is our enemy. We’re not going to take it.”
The recent increase in drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas has been partly an effort to inflict losses on militants responsible for mounting attacks inside Afghanistan, a senior U.S. official said, and also to heighten pressure on the Islamabad government to deny groups like the Haqqani a safe haven.
“We are reaching the limit of our patience, and for that reason it is extremely important that Pakistan take action,” Panetta told a news conference. However, the U.S. has been calling on Pakistan for years to crack down on insurgent sanctuaries, with little result.
In just three hours on the ground, Panetta met with Gen. John Allen, the U.S. commander of Western forces in Afghanistan; U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who is shortly leaving his post for health reasons; and the defense secretary’s Afghan counterpart, Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, who appeared with him at a joint news conference.
The NATO force has been handing over security responsibility to Afghan forces, a phased process that is to be completed by 2014, when NATO’s combat role ends. However, thousands of Western troops — including special operations forces and trainers for the Afghan police and army — are expected to remain in place after that.