WASHINGTON - US and Afghan defence chiefs on Tuesday discussed the future of American troops in Afghanistan after 2014, with both sides calling for a long-term security partnership.

US Defence Leon Panetta hosted Afghan Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Bismillah Khan at the Pentagon two days after Washington and Kabul signed a deal putting Afghans in charge of controversial night raids, removing a major obstacle to a security pact governing the US military’s future presence beyond 2014. “We are looking forward to an enduring, long-term cooperation (with the US),” Wardak said in English at the start of the meeting.  “We can say that it is vital for the survival of our country in that volatile, dangerous neighborhood,” he said.

Panetta said he looked forward to discussing “our ability to arrive at a strategic partnership agreement that will again be another step forward in our relationship.” The Pentagon chief called the newly-signed memorandum on night operations a milestone in a gradual handover from NATO to Afghan security forces, scheduled to be complete by the end of 2014.

“The fact that we were able to achieve a pact I think was a very important step forward to ensure that we will make the transition to Afghan operations, but we will do it in a responsible and effective way,” Panetta said.

He said the two sides would discuss the future of Afghan security forces, including the troop levels that will be reached in a short-term “surge” and “ultimately the levels you can sustain in the future.”

US commanders have recently signaled that the eventual troop strength of the Afghan forces would be dramatically scaled back from initial plans, amid concerns about the cost that will be absorbed mostly by the United States and its allies.

He said both countries shared the same goal of establishing “a sovereign Afghanistan that can in fact secure and govern itself.”

Wardak and Mohammadi thanked their US counterparts for the sacrifices of American troops and the defence minister said Afghan forces had made genuine progress on the battlefield over the past year.

“There’s no doubt we are in a critical juncture. But after years of struggle, tomorrow’s goal is in sight,” Wardak said.

He said that “continued US support and cooperation will play a decisive and vital role” in the country’s future stability.

Most of the 130,000 NATO-led troops in the country are due to leave by the end of 2014, but US officials have left the door open to retaining a smaller US force.

Washington and Kabul still have to hammer out what bases and airfields US forces would be able to use after 2014 and possible legal protections for American troops — an issue that derailed a possible security deal in Iraq last year.