KABUL, Afghanistan - Voicing cautious optimism, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan said Tuesday that he's seeing signs of a possible lifting of Pakistan's communications blackout imposed on the U.S.-led coalition after NATO airstrikes killed two dozen Pakistani forces last month.
Marine Gen. John Allen revealed for the first time that he spoke on the phone Monday with Pakistan army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani - their first conversation since just after the airstrikes. Allen said they both expressed a commitment to work through the incident and try to restore coordination between their forces along the border.
"I do have a sense of progress," Allen told reporters at a news briefing at his Camp Eggers headquarters in Kabul, describing the phone call as businesslike and cordial. "The conversation was clearly about attempting to resolve the issue ... around the border incident, in the sense that, let's restore border coordination so that we can move on."
He added that he believes Pakistan will soon restore its liaison officers, who were pulled after the Nov. 26 incident, to border coordination centers or NATO headquarters in Kabul. Allen said the two did not discuss when Pakistan would reopen its border crossings to NATO convoys transporting supplies for troops in Afghanistan.
Allen made his comments shortly after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in Afghanistan unannounced to talk with commanders about the war. In addition to chilly relations with Pakistan, the U.S. also is grappling with ongoing plans to withdraw tens of thousands of troops in coming months, hand over security to Afghan forces and deal with the impact of potentially big budget cuts to the military.
Panetta's trip to Afghanistan is the second stop on a holiday tour that began in the Horn of Africa Tuesday morning and will also take him to Iraq, Libya and Turkey. He will be the first U.S. defense chief to visit Libya, which is emerging from an eight-month civil war. In Iraq, he will participate in a ceremony that will shut down the U.S. military mission there after nearly nine years of war.
Panetta's arrival in Kabul comes on the heels of Pakistan's decision to move air defense systems to the border with Afghanistan, part of its response to last month's deadly airstrikes on its forces. Pakistan also has closed two border crossings that are part of key supply routes into Afghanistan and recalled its troops from two border coordination posts.
The supply routes carry roughly 30 percent of the fuel, food and other items needed for troops in Afghanistan. The blockades have forced the U.S. to use alternative northern routes into Afghanistan that are more costly and take longer.
While both Allen and Panetta said U.S. troops in Afghanistan will get the supplies they need, the plummeting relationship with Pakistan complicates an already difficult war just as the Obama administration is trying to boast of security gains across broad swaths of the country.
So far, the administration's drawdown plans are on track with some 94,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Allen was ordered by Obama last summer to pull out 10,000 U.S. forces by the end of this year and 23,000 more by the end of September 2012. There have been some rumblings that the administration may consider accelerating that drawdown, with an eye toward handing more control to the Afghans and shifting U.S. troops into more of an advise-and-assist role.
Panetta and Allen both spoke optimistically about the security progress in Afghanistan. And Allen said he believes the shift of additional forces to the troubled eastern border in the coming months will improve security there - possibly over a shorter time period than the two years it took to make substantive progress in the south.
"I think 2011 will make a turning point with regards to the effort in Afghanistan," Panetta told reporters traveling with him to Kabul. He cited lower levels of violence and the successful turnover of portions of the country to Afghan control. "Clearly I think Afghanistan is on a much better track in terms of our ability to eventually transition to an Afghanistan that can govern and secure itself."
Panetta said Allen reassured him that military operations were continuing along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, despite the problems with Pakistan.
"I think it's been said a number of times," said Panetta. "Ultimately we can't win the war in Afghanistan without being able to win in our relationship with Pakistan as well."
Allen said Tuesday that the U.S. troops will begin to move into the advisory role next year, stepping back from their current counterinsurgency mission with Afghan forces. Over time, U.S. and NATO forces would provide training and guidance, air support, and other assistance as the Afghan troops take the lead.
In the east, where insurgents launch attacks against troops from sanctuaries in Pakistan, the battle is expected to grow fiercer.
Allen said he expects the U.S. will be conducting significant counterinsurgency operations in the east in the next year. The commander, however, would not provide details on the expected troop withdrawals, or any plans for strategy changes as the year goes on.
The battlefield decisions also are complicated by the budget showdown in Washington. The Pentagon could face as much as $1 trillion in automatic cuts over the next 10 years if lawmakers can't reach a broader agreement on government spending.
This week, Congress was working on legislation that would authorize $662 billion in defense spending for 2012, including day-to-day operations for the Pentagon as well money for the war. Trying to reflect a period of austerity and a winding down of decade-old conflicts, House and Senate negotiators agreed to $27 billion less than President Barack Obama wanted and $43 billion less than authorized for the 2011 budget year.
On his historic Libya trip, Panetta said the U.S. wants to help Libyans move in the right direction as the people take back their country. With U.S. and NATO military assistance, Libyans ousted and later killed longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi earlier this year.
Panetta's plan to visit Libya comes amid ongoing violence there, including recent clashes between revolutionary fighters and national army troops near Tripoli's airport.