KABUL, Afghanistan - U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday the U.S. will continue to conduct intelligence operations from Afghanistan like the recent mission that led to the loss of a drone over Iran, and he gave an upbeat assessment of the unpopular war.
Standing with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Panetta provided a cryptic response to questions about the lost drone, which has exposed details of the little-known U.S. intelligence and surveillance efforts aimed at Iran.
But the Pentagon chief and former CIA head left little doubt that the U.S. finds Afghanistan a useful place from which to spy on its neighbor, and intends to keep at it. The operations benefit both the U.S. and Afghanistan, Panetta said.
"These are operations that I will not discuss publicly, other than to say that part and parcel of our effort to defend this country, and to defend our country involves important intelligence operations that we will continue to pursue," he said.
The RQ-170 drone, known as the Sentinel, was lost over Iran two weeks ago. The Pentagon initially said only that it malfunctioned after being launched in western Afghanistan. But it later emerged that the drone had taken off from a base in Afghanistan and was flying a surveillance mission over Iran when it came down.
Iranian state television broadcast video of Iranians inspecting the aircraft, which was largely intact.
"Part and parcel to the effort to not only protect Afghanistan, but to protect the United States is to obtain important intelligence that allows us to be able to protect our people and to protect ours," Panetta said during a news conference with Karzai.
Although the U.S. is Afghanistan's main patron, U.S. use of Afghan soil to spy on its enemy Iran puts Karzai in a difficult position.
Afghanistan has long cultural and linguistic ties to Iran and maintains a mostly friendly relationship with the Tehran government.
"Afghanistan was not aware that a drone had malfunctioned in Iran," Karzai said.
He added that Iran has asked Afghanistan for more information.
"Afghanistan has pledged to its neighbors the best of relationships," Karzai added, and doesn't want to be involved in any "adversarial relations" between the U.S. and Iran.
"Afghanistan wishes that they be friends and that Afghanistan's sovereignty and territorial integrity and soil is not used one against the other," Karzai said.
Visiting with forces earlier Wednesday in Paktika province, Panetta asserted that U.S.-dominated forces are winning the fight against the Taliban-led insurgency.
"I really think that for all the sacrifices that you're doing, the reality is that it is paying off and that we're moving in the right direction," Panetta said. "We're winning this very tough conflict here in Afghanistan."
Panetta was less than 34 miles from the Pakistan border when he told U.S. troops they have reached a turning point in the war. He also demanded that Islamabad must do more to secure its side of the border.
His upbeat assessment of the war came against a backdrop of the eroding relations with Pakistan and continued difficulties with corruption and inefficiency in Karzai's U.S.-backed government.
Panetta toned down the optimism a bit during his news conference with Karzai, saying the U.S. hasn't won, but is in "the process of making significant progress." He said the Taliban has been weakened, transition to Afghan security forces is ongoing, and that while there are high-profile attacks, things are moving in the right direction.
Pakistan imposed a communications blackout on the U.S.-led coalition after NATO airstrikes killed two dozen Pakistani forces last month. There has been a series of high-profile attacks in Kabul and across the south, including one Wednesday that killed a local government official and two bodyguards in Helmand province.
While U.S. officials have suggested there may be some move to thaw the frigid tensions, Panetta made it clear that the U.S. still wants Pakistan to go after the insurgents who are launching attacks against U.S. forces from sanctuaries on that side of the border.
"Ultimately, we've got to make sure that if we're going to secure this country [Afghanistan], the Pakistanis better damn well secure their country as well," Panetta told the troops.
U.S. military leaders echoed Panetta's view that they have seen progress both in the south, the heartland of the Taliban insurgency, as well as in the east.
They acknowledge, though, that there will be tough fighting in the east next year as the U.S. works to reverse gains made by militants who find sanctuary on the Pakistan side of the border.
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, who directs day-to-day military operations in Afghanistan, told reporters that he believes the Taliban have been handed a tactical defeat in the south, where troops now need to consolidate the gains.
But he agreed that next year, as an additional 23,000 U.S. troops are pulled out of Afghanistan, the coalition and Afghan forces will have to make major gains in the east.
Scaparrotti and commanders in eastern Afghanistan agreed that improved coordination with Pakistan is critical, and without improvement it will make the campaign in the region much more difficult next year.