Leon Panetta, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, is in Afghanistan to parley with military commanders with Pakistan greatly on his mind.

As NATO prepares to gradually withdraw troops from Afghanistan after ten years of war, the U.S.’ deteriorating relationship with Pakistan raises fears about the security situation in the region following the departure of western soldiers.

Panetta is expected to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Defense Secretary Abdul Rahim Wardak.

Panetta’s arrival coincides with a decision by Islamabad to relocate its air defense systems to the Afghan border in the wake of NATO air strikes that killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers last month.

Associated Press reported that Pakistan has shut down two key border crossings (in Chaman and Torkham in the northwest Khyber tribal area) which provide necessary supply routes to NATO forces in Afghanistan – 30 percent of food, fuel and other provisions went through these crossings.

It is unclear how long these crossings will remain closed by Pakistan. Should they stay closed for an extended period of time, supplies transported to NATO troops in Afghanistan would require taking more expensive and riskier routes.

Even more alarming, Pakistan has reportedly commenced peace talks with Taliban officials.

Meanwhile, Panetta is heralding what now appears to be an improving security situation in Afghanistan.

”I think 2011 will make a turning point with regards to the effort in Afghanistan,” Panetta told reporters prior to arriving Kabul.
”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.”

He added: “Troops have been able to reduce the levels of violence there. They are successful in securing some of the key areas in Afghanistan. There's greater success in the Afghan military and police.

However, Pakistan remains a serious worry for Panetta.

The defense chief told media that Marine General John Allen, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, has contacted his Pakistani counterparts in order to restore a measure of trust and cooperation with respect to military operations along the border.

”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.”

Under orders from President Barack Obama, the U.S. will withdraw 10,000 troops by the end of this year, and an additional 23,000 by September 2012.

After he departs Afghanistan, Panetta will tour through Iraq, Libya and Turkey.