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    Panetta all praise for Afghan army

    WASHINGTON (PAN): US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Wednesday praised the progress made by the Afghan National Army, saying it had come on its own operationally.

    “It started really being effective in terms of providing security,” Panetta told lawmakers at a Congressional hearing. In 2011, the level of violence in Afghanistan went down and the Taliban significantly weakened, he said.

    “We've gone through several tranches of areas where we're transitioning to Afghan security and governance; the second tranche which we've just gone through and announced,” the secretary added.

    Panetta said the US would continue those tranches through 2012, as well as into 2013, when the Afghans were expected to take the lead with regard to combat operations. Although the US would stay combat-ready, it would be basically be operating in support through the remainder of 2014, he said.

    Responding to questions, Panetta called Al Qaeda the primary enemy of the United States in the Af-Pak region. “The Taliban are a very broad group. Our primary enemy in that part of the world is Al Qaeda. The Taliban elements, the terrorist elements that support Al Qaida are also our enemy,” he said.

    Some Taliban figures, obviously, supported Al Qaeda, he said, adding the US had been targeting, Panetta said. “Our goal is to make sure that they never again can establish a safe haven in Afghanistan from which to conduct attacks on this country…”