By Mike Mount
Afghan President Hamid Karzai showed up to the Pentagon on Thursday with a wish list of military equipment to ensure the security of his country by the time NATO forces leave at the end of 2014.
In return, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had a message to deliver – the United States wants to make sure Afghanistan does not become a terrorist safe haven again.
Karzai's meeting with Panetta, occurring under a cloud of mistrust between both countries, was expected to have some tough talk about the future of Afghanistan. But publicly, the image seemed like there was no trouble at all.
It was the first stop for the Afghan president who was to have dinner with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday and meet with President Barack Obama on Friday.
Karzai was given a ceremonial greeting on the Pentagon parade grounds that included a 21-gun salute by Army cannons.
Afterward, Panetta and Karzai, accompanied by their top staff members, sat down for a meeting.
"This is a wonderful opportunity and it comes after 10 years of war, of blood, of battle, the loss of many on both sides," Panetta said in remarks to reporters before the meeting.
"But 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," he said.
Karzai offered similar sentiment but also promised his country would be secure under its forces, something the United States wonders about.
"I can assure you, Mr. Secretary, that Afghanistan will, with the help that you provide, be able to provide security to its people and to protect its borders; so Afghanistan would not ever again be threatened by terrorists from across our borders," Karzai said.
But Karzai knows that will not be easy as the United States mulls a post-NATO troop presence of between zero and 9,000 soldiers. Additionally, the Afghan population has little faith in the government in Kabul and the security forces are still far from being able to handle things on their own.
That is probably why he came to the Pentagon asking for more helicopters, drones and other hardware to support Afghan forces, according to a senior defense official.
Panetta told reporters at a news conference after the meeting that he explained to Karzai the United States would develop a list of equipment after assessing threats to Afghanistan.
A recent Pentagon report found that the Afghan Border Patrol relies on the United States for its most basic needs, including food and water, while only one Afghan Army unit can operate without American assistance.
It is unclear how well Afghan forces could perform without most of the equipment they want because they have very little of it. Moreover, U.S. or allied forces are the ones using aircraft and specialized weaponry during missions.
What's more, defense officials say, Karzai prefers any residual U.S. troop presence to focus on training his forces. He is opposed to foreign troops conducting raids, a major part of the counter-terrorism mission that the United States would like to maintain after the end of the NATO mission.
But the United States wants assurances from Karzai that terrorists would not gain a foothold once American troops depart.
The two sides will continue negotiations over what, if any, troops will remain.
The Pentagon left no troops in Iraq, in part because the government demanded that any remaining American forces be subject to Iraqi laws and courts.
A senior Defense official told CNN that he does not see the same kind of inflexibility in Afghanistan.
While sovereignty is extremely important to the Afghans, the official said Karzai is more concerned about Afghan prisoners being held in U.S. military jails than the question of legal protection for American troops.
It is no secret that Karzai wants total Afghan control of detention operations, meaning all Afghans being held by the United States and NATO allies would be turned over to Afghan authorities immediately.
The United States is not eager to give up control of those detainees because of concerns over whether Afghan authorities would properly handle their cases and under what authority they might be released.
Panetta seemed confident following the meeting, but offered no details about their conversation.
"I was very satisfied with the discussions I had with President Karzai. He indicated a willingness to do what we believe is necessary in order to accomplish what we agreed to do in Chicago," Panetta said about the U.S.-Afghan deal to build a strong relationship between the two countries once the combat mission ends.
The United States is also talking with NATO and other allies about whether they would contribute troops post-2014, a senior State Department official said on Thursday.
The American presence will extend beyond security to diplomats. The State Department is planning on maintaining its Kabul embassy as well as four consulates in Heart, Jalalabad, Kandahar and Mazzar, said the senior State Department official.
Those facilities could be protected by troops or security contractors, the official said.