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Panetta Makes An Unannounced Trip To Afghanistan


Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is in Kabul, Afghanistan. He arrived this morning for a quick, unannounced visit with troops and also to check in on the progress of the war. Panetta's trip comes a day after a Taliban attack in southern Afghanistan left over 20 dead and at least 50 people wounded. Also yesterday, NATO forces were being blamed for allegedly killing civilians in an early morning strike.

NPR's Larry Abramson is traveling with Secretary Panetta, and joins us from Kabul. And, Larry, I understand that the secretary spent some time visiting with troops and Americans who are serving in Afghanistan. What did he have to say?

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: He did. He met with troops who are stationed at the Joint Taskforce Center here at Kabul International Airport. I'm actually standing right on the tarmac. That's why it's so noisy. And he spoke with several hundred troops there. He said he was very proud of them, really glad for the work that they were doing.

One person who was at that event who works with a program that helps villagers - so not a military program, but actually an effort to improve relations with villagers. He said that Afghan villagers were extremely worried about what was going to happen after U.S. troops leave in 2014. And, of course, the withdrawal is set for 2014. There's going to be troops here until then. Panetta said we are not going anywhere. He said there's going to be a continued U.S. presence. He can't tell us exactly what that's going to be, but there will be more American support in some form after 2014.

GREENE: And this must be a moment of increased worry with these Taliban attacks yesterday in southern Afghanistan. I mean, did the secretary say anything about that? Was this overshadowing his trip at all?

ABRAMSON: He did seem to note that this was a serious attack, but he said that, overall, violence is down. And this has been the Pentagon's line all along, is that some of these attacks are spectacular. They target civilians. They make headlines. But the overall trend for violence is down, and that that really shouldn't have caused them to make any changes in their plans.

He did admit that they are reassessing the withdrawal of surge troops, those, you know, the extra troops that were sent in a while ago are supposed to be out by September 30th. And he said that he and General Allen, the commander of forces here, say that they are looking at the situation on the ground. And he basically admitted that if things got really bad, that they would have to change that plan. Right now, things are not to that point.

GREENE: Larry, the trip that you're on was supposed to be a tour of the Asia-Pacific, and the secretary was announcing a new defense focus on the Asia-Pacific. How does Afghanistan fit into the, you know, the whole context of this tour?

ABRAMSON: Well, first of all, it fits in in the sense that the U.S. can't really ship to the Pacific until the mission in Afghanistan is over with. It's premised on the idea that the war in Iraq, another war Afghanistan, are winding down, and we can turn our attention elsewhere. So they need success here for them to be able to worry about other security issues.

It also fits in the sense that countries like India - which Secretary of Defense Panetta visited yesterday - are very worried that when Western troops pull out of Afghanistan, that they're going to be exposed on their western flank, that basically, there's going to be another center for terrorism in Afghanistan. They already have to worry about that problem because of the level of terrorist activity in Pakistan. So, many countries are worried about the stability of this region affecting them, no matter where they are.

GREENE: Larry, thanks so much, and safe travels.

ABRAMSON: Thanks a lot.

GREENE: NPR's Larry Abramson, talking to us from the Kabul Airport, where Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made a brief stop to visit troops on his way home from Asia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.