By Carlo Muñoz - 04/10/12 08:24 PM EDT
As American troops prepare to leave Afghanistan in the next two years, leaders from both countries are laying the foundation for continued cooperation once U.S. forces depart.
"There's no doubt we are in a critical juncture" in Afghanistan, Defense Minister Abdul Wardak said on Tuesday. "But after years of struggle, tomorrow's goal is in sight."
The meeting was the third one for the U.S.-Afghanistan Security Consultations Forum. But it was the first forum meeting with Panetta as DOD chief.
"This forum is an effort to move forward in trying to achieve those goals," Panetta said. "I'm confident that as we work [together] we can achieve our shared goal to help your people be able to have a sovereign Afghanistan that can truly govern and secure itself."
Tuesday's meeting comes less than a month before NATO's annual summit in Chicago. During the summit, U.S. and Afghan leaders are expected to finalize a new Strategic Partnership Agreement.
That deal will outline America's role in the country after 2014, when the Obama administration plans to have all American troops out of Afghanistan. Roughly 23,000 American soldiers are set to rotate back to the United States this summer as part of the White House's withdrawal strategy.
The 68,000 U.S. boots on the ground left in Afghanistan will leave the country within the next two years.
Panetta and Wardak spent much of Tuesday's discussing the progress being made by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), which will assume control of all military and law enforcement operations once U.S. and NATO troops withdraw.
American military leaders in Afghanistan have already begun to transition a number of key missions to the ANSF.
Washington and Kabul finalized a deal on Sunday to give Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government full oversight of night raids launched by American and Afghan special forces.
The deal puts Afghan special forces units, known as Kandaks, in the lead of operations with support of U.S. forces. It also requires U.S. and Afghan forces to obtain a warrant from an Afghan panel composed of military and intelligence officials before carrying out any night raid.
American commanders would be consulted before any decision on an operation as part of the deal.
But the ultimate decision would rest with Afghan leaders as "defined by the terms of the memorandum," DOD spokesman Capt. John Kirby told reporters on Monday.
Weeks earlier, U.S. and coalition forces officially handed over control of all terror detainee operations in the country. That deal, finalized on April 2, included transferring control of the Parwan detention facility at Bagram Air Force base to Kabul.
Home to roughly 3,000 insurgents captured by U.S. and coalition forces, Parwan surpassed the American prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, as the U.S-run detainee facility in the world.
Panetta said both pacts represented "another milestone" toward Afghanistan taking total control of its own security.
However, some inside Washington have questioned whether the ANSF is really ready to handle either of those missions.
“I've seen the caliber of an Afghan corrections officer soldier ... [and] I've got to be honest with you, I have deep concerns,” Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) told Defense officials on March 12.
Others have expressed concern the new deal on night raids could hamstring American commanders and harm the war effort.
That deal did not give the Karzai administration veto power over U.S and NATO-led special operations missions in the country, Kirby told reporters. However, the terms of that deal will be in place as U.S. special forces plan to take a larger operational role in the country after 2014.
U.S. and Afghan special-operations units will spearhead a massive push into insurgent-controlled areas in eastern Afghanistan this spring, near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) chief Gen. John Allen said on March 26.
Those troops "will remain a fact on the ground" in Afghanistan long after the White House withdrawal deadline expires, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a March 20 speech in Washington.
Exactly how many American military units will remain in the country after 2014 and what they will be doing during their stay is still up for debate. But leaders from both nations claim that a long-term U.S. commitment in Afghanistan once the war is over is all but certain.
"We are looking forward to an enduring, long-term cooperation," Wardak said. "It is vital for the survival of our country."