By David Alexander
OTTAWA (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Tuesday it was important for NATO-led forces to continue implementing their strategy to end the conflict in Afghanistan despite growing signs of public fatigue after 10 years of war.
"We cannot fight wars by polls. If we do that we're in deep trouble," Panetta told a news conference in Canada.
"We have to operate based on what we believe is the best strategy to achieve the mission that we are embarked on," he said. "And the mission here is to safeguard our country by ensuring that the Taliban and al Qaeda never again find safe haven in Afghanistan."
Panetta's remarks came a day after the New York Times reported that a new public opinion poll showed that more than two-thirds of Americans believe the United States should no longer be fighting in Afghanistan, with 68 percent saying the fighting was going "very badly" or "somewhat badly."
Panetta, speaking at a news conference following a meeting with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts, said, "There's no question that the American people are tired of war, just as the Afghans are tired of war."
But he said he thought most Americans understood that the United States had gone to war in Afghanistan in 2001 to ensure that al Qaeda never again had a safe haven from which to launch the kinds of attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people on September 11.
Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay said the NATO effort in Afghanistan was "the greatest challenge of our generation, in my view, to prevent this type of attack from ever happening again."
He noted that Canada had lost citizens in the attacks on New York and Washington, which had prompted NATO to invoke its article on mutual defense for the first time ever.
"Are Canadians weary of war? Absolutely," MacKay said. "Like the United States of America, like our NATO colleagues, we have been in Afghanistan for a decade. We have seen the scourge of war and the toll that it takes on soldiers, in particular, families, the population at large."
He said trying to bring lasting peace and stability to Afghanistan was a "monumental task," but he saw progress on the ground, from the increasing effectiveness of Afghan security forces to the fact that the country "is no longer able to be an incubator and an exporter of terror."
Panetta said he was convinced that 2011 was an important turning point in the war, with overall violence dropping despite occasional flare-ups.
"We continue to have sporadic incidents of violence. Of course. This is a war. We're going to see that happen but it shouldn't undermine our efforts to continue the strategy we're on," he said.
Panetta said the Afghan army was improving "dramatically in terms of its operational skills" and now provided security for half of the Afghan population.
"They are involved directly in operations, they are involved in providing security and ultimately that's going to be a very important answer to completing this mission," he said.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Lisa Shumaker)