AUCKLAND, New Zealand --
The drawdown of U.S. surge forces in Afghanistan is complete as scheduled, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta announced here today during a news conference with New Zealand Defense Minister Dr. Jonathan Coleman.
Panetta said the return of 33,000 troops President Barack Obama committed to the war in Afghanistan in 2009 is ?an important milestone.?
?As we reflect on this moment, it is an opportunity to recognize that the surge accomplished its objectives of reversing Taliban momentum on the battlefield and dramatically increased the size and capability of the Afghan national security forces,? he said.
The surge of forces allowed the United States and its coalition partners in NATO?s International Security Assistance Force to begin transitioning to Afghan security lead, he said, noting that Afghan forces soon will be responsible for leading their country?s defense in areas of every province, and for more than 75 percent of the Afghan population.
?At the same time, we have struck enormous blows against al-Qaida's leadership, consistent with our core goal of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaida and denying it a safe haven,? the secretary said.
The 68,000 U.S. service members who remain in Afghanistan combine with other nation?s forces to make ISAF around 100,000 troops strong, Panetta said. Those forces will keep working to reduce the level of violence in Afghanistan, ensure the Taliban do not regain any of their previously held areas, and strengthen the Afghan army, he added.
Panetta said Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, commander of U.S. and ISAF forces in Afghanistan, is confident he can accomplish his campaign with the current force level.
?I have always had tremendous confidence in General Allen?s ability to say to me, ?This is what I need in order to accomplish the mission,?? the secretary said. ?Right now, he is saying the force he has in place is sufficient to accomplish that mission.?
Panetta is in New Zealand for the final stop on his third Asian tour, which also included visits to Japan and China.