KABUL  — Pakistani leaders have often promised to take action, but have not followed through and without such action, peace and security in Afghanistan will remain elusive, said Pentagon chief Leon Panetta.

At a news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai late on Thursday night, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who is expected to step down early in 2013 and return to private life, made a plea for Pakistan to do more to clear al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other extremist groups from the alleged havens on its side of the border with Afghanistan.

Describing the Kandahar attack as further evidence of insurgent brutality, Panetta said, "This is what they resort to in order to try to continue to stimulate chaos in this country," he said. "They will not be successful."

The Karzai-Obama meeting, which Panetta said would occur during the week of Jan 7, with no specific date set, also is intended to discuss prospects for establishing a process for pursuing peace with the Taliban.

Obama had asked his Afghan counterpart to meet him in the United States for talks on January 7 "to discuss a shared vision of Afghanistan beyond 2014," said Panetta, adding that Karzai had accepted the invitation.

US administration officials say Obama is considering a possible post-2014 mission ranging from 6,000 to 15,000 troops, if Kabul agrees.

The main message of Panetta's two-day visit to Afghanistan was one of reassurance to Afghans that they will not be abandoned after 2014. And he made a pitch for patience among Americans tired of war.

"For the first time since 9/11 we have a chance to achieve the mission that we are embarked upon," Panetta said. "To achieve that mission will require a continued commitment, continued perseverance, continued partnership and continued sacrifice on the part of our nations."

He told Karzai that his country should not doubt US resolve to prevent the Taliban from regaining power and potentially facilitating al-Qaida's return.

"America will not turn away from Afghanistan," he said.

Another major issue facing Panetta in the closing weeks of his tenure is how many US troops to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2013 and 2014. There currently are 66,000 in the country, down from a peak of about 100,000 in 2011.

US Army Maj-Gen Robert Abrams, commander of international forces in four southern provinces, including the key province of Kandahar, told reporters Thursday that he foresees further troop cuts in coming months, but he did not specify whether he was talking only about US troops.

"I fully expect by next summer we will have less Isaf forces here because we'll need less Isaf forces," Abrams said, using the acronym for the US-led International Security Assistance Force. He said believes fewer will be needed because Afghan forces will be more capable by then. At the press conference, President Hamid Karzai said he will meet President Barack Obama in Washington next month to discuss a postwar US role in his country, whose fragile security was highlighted hours earlier by a suicide bombing that killed one US troop and two Afghan civilians.

Karzai said he and Obama will discuss how many US troops will remain after the Western combat mission ends in December 2014. He said he understands that immunity from Afghan laws for those remaining Americans is of ‘immense importance’ to Washington, but he added that he has his own priorities in negotiating a postwar US role.

Karzai reiterated his view Thursday that Kabul could be willing to grant legal immunity to US troops in return for the United States helping arm the Afghan military and turning over control of all detainees held by American forces.

"Give us a good army, a good air force and a capability to project Afghan interests in the region," Karzai said, and he would be ready to argue "with ease and with reason" that his country should grant immunity to US troops. Obama has said the US will not abandon Afghanistan and risk that it might revert to the al-Qaida haven it became in the 1990s after the Taliban came to power. Nor has he indicated what size and scope of post-2104 military mission he thinks is necessary and affordable.

Panetta is also scheduled to consult with military commanders and Afghan leaders, including President Hamid Karzai, "to get a better sense of just exactly what's happening in Afghanistan," said an American Forces Press Service statement.

The Defense Secretary said the campaign was on a better path than it was four years ago despite real challenges that remained in the region.

"We've got a strong campaign plan in place supported by the United States and [the International Security Assistance Force], confirmed by the Nato nations [during the Nato summit this summer in] Chicago," Panetta said, adding that a strategic partnership agreement signed in June by the Presidents of the two countries "pretty much affirms our enduring presence in Afghanistan in the long run." Violence levels have trended downward in the last two years after five years of steady increases beginning in 2006, the Secretary noted, and claimed that the Taliban was unable to regain territory they had lost over the past few years.

"On insider attacks, an area that remains a concern, we have a downward trend, … and populated areas have grown more secure," Panetta said. "In 2012, violence dropped significantly in Kabul, [by] 22 percent, and in Kandahar by almost 62 percent."

The Afghan national security force is becoming more capable, the Secretary said. They have reached the 352,000 end-strength goal on schedule and now are in the lead in about 85 percent of the operations. They are also leading some large-scale operations, he added.

Seventy-five percent of the Afghan population now lives in areas that are undergoing transition to Afghan security, Panetta said, and 100 percent of the population should be in transition by mid-2013. Progress in other areas includes health care and education, he added.

"Eighty-five percent of the population in Afghanistan now has ready access to health care, compared to nine percent in 2002," the Secretary said. "[And] more than eight million students are enrolled in schools, compared to one million in 2002, and 35 percent of the kids in school are girls."

However, he admitted that significant challenges remain, "involving governance, continuing corruption, the problem with insurgent safe havens in Pakistan, economic challenges and a resilient Taliban that continues to challenge our security in Afghanistan."

On the problem of enemy safe havens in Pakistan, the Secretary said the Pakistani government understood their responsibility. "I think as a result of recent meetings with Pakistan that we are more encouraged with the fact that they want to take steps to try to limit the terrorist threat within their own country and the threat that goes across the border."

Panetta added that the Pakistanis "have cooperated with us in a better fashion with regards to opening up the [ground lines of communication between Pakistan and Afghanistan]."

The Pakistanis also have expressed a greater interest in helping with reconciliation of Taliban soldiers into Afghan society, and Pakistan Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has indicated a willingness to try to put more pressure on the terrorist safe havens, Panetta said, adding that "as always, actions have to speak louder than words."

As security improves and the Afghan national security force steps into the lead, "the opportunity to focus on these challenges and hopefully strengthen governance and the rule of law and the Afghan economy is a goal we're after," Panetta said.

The Pentagon chief said he looked forward to getting a firsthand view of Afghanistan's status by speaking with ISAF Commander Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen and other Commanders, and with the Afghan leadership.

"This will help me as we set the groundwork for the decisions that have to be made by President Obama with regard to the enduring presence [in Afghanistan]," Panetta added.

The Secretary said he and others would present options to Obama for the nature of the enduring presence in Afghanistan, "and hopefully he'll make a decision within these next few weeks," which will allow Allen to figure out what the draw down in Afghanistan ought to be and over what period of time.