Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, right, hosts a full military honors ceremony welcoming Afghan President Hamid Karzai to the Pentagon on Jan. 10. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON — In a notably upbeat assessment of war progress, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday that the U.S.-led coalition has advanced to the "last chapter" of an 11-year struggle to ensure that Afghanistan can defend itself.
The endgame to which Panetta referred is punctuated with uncertainty, beginning with doubts about whether the Afghan government can build legitimacy by credibly serving its population. Also in question is whether Afghan security forces will be capable of holding off the Taliban after international forces leave in 2014.
Panetta, who intends to quit his post within weeks, held an hourlong, one-on-one meeting at the Pentagon with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The Pentagon chief said afterward that they had made "very good progress" on key issues, including the basis for an agreement on continued U.S. assistance after the combat mission ends.
Panetta also predicted that his designated successor, former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, will be confirmed by the Senate, despite questions raised by many about his views on Israel and Iran.
"I think a lot of the criticisms that are being made right now are unfair," Panetta said, adding that he would leave it to Hagel to address these at his Senate confirmation hearing, the date for which has not yet been set.
"In these confirmation battles there are a lot of charges that will be out there," he added. "There will be a lot of criticisms that are out there. But ultimately, the truth prevails. And I think the truth in this case will mean that he'll be confirmed."
Panetta said he is confident, after having met with Hagel to discuss their transition, that the Vietnam War veteran is committed to the plan for gradually shifting responsibility for Afghanistan's security to Afghan forces so that foreign forces can leave in two years.
Panetta told a news conference that he and Karzai had laid the groundwork for the Afghan leader's meeting at the White House on Friday with President Barack Obama. That session is not expected to clarify the size of any U.S. military role in Afghanistan after 2014, but it may spell out specific examples of U.S. aid.
"We made very good progress on, you know, the kind of equipment that we would try to make available to them," to enable the Afghans to not only secure their borders but also prevent a Taliban takeover, Panetta said.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the same news conference that U.S. and Afghan officials are developing a common assessment of threats Afghanistan is likely to face in the future. Conclusions from that study will help determine the full range of Afghanistan's military requirements, he said.
U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have proposed options for keeping between 6,000 and 15,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014 to continuing pressuring terrorists and further developing Afghan security forces. But the White House has aimed even lower, telling reporters on Tuesday that Obama would be open to the possibility of withdrawing entirely in 2014, so long as he can be confident that Afghanistan can stand on its own.
Karzai was meeting privately later Thursday at the State Department with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton before they are joined for dinner by Panetta and Obama's national security adviser, Tom Donilon.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the Clinton-Karzai talks would focus on the process of handing off security responsibility to Afghan forces through the end of 2014, as well as preparations for next year's Afghan elections and prospects for advancing Afghan peace talks with the Taliban.
Karzai was greeted at the Pentagon by a ceremonial honor guard, and at a photo-taking session in Panetta's office the Afghan leader said he could assure the American people that his country "will not ever again be threatened by terrorists from across our borders" — an allusion to the al-Qaida leaders hiding in Pakistan. It was from Afghanistan that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida operatives plotted the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Panetta spoke optimistically about the outlook for avoiding failure in Afghanistan. After more than 11 years of heavy sacrifice — including the loss of a little more than 2,000 U.S. troops — a brighter future is in sight, he said.
"After a long and difficult path we finally are, I believe, at the last chapter of establishing an Afghanistan, a sovereign Afghanistan, that can govern and secure itself for the future," Panetta said.