REPORTING FROM FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHARANA, AFGHANISTAN -- 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 from the U.S. Army's 172nd Infantry Brigade at Forward Operating Base Sharana, about 30 miles from the Afghan-Pakistani border.
Worried that the eventual outcome in Afghanistan will prove messy, U.S. officials generally have avoided claiming to be winning the conflict. Instead, over the last year they have claimed to be making fragile progress against the insurgency.
A year ago former Defense Secretary Robert M Gates also claimed on a visit to Kabul that the Afghan war was moving in the right direction.
Forward Operating Base Sharana is in Paktika province, 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 U.S. was walking away from Afghanistan. "All of the blood we have shed here has not been shed in vain," he said.
Col. Ed Bohnermann, commander of the 172nd, said Paktika had seen steep drops in insurgent attacks in recent months, even greater than usually occurs as winter weather approaches. "The drop that we've seen this year is much more substantial than we saw last year," he said.
But Bohnermann said efforts to choke off the flow of militants has 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 NATO to move supplies into Afghanistan.
--David S. Cloud
Photo: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta addresses military personnel of the 172nd Infantry Brigade at Forward Operating Base Sharana in Afghanistan. Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press