By David Alexander
ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT (Reuters) - Progress in Afghanistan has cost thousands of military lives and it would be helpful if Afghan President Hamid Karzai expressed gratitude for that sacrifice, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Friday, bluntly rejecting the Afghan leader's recent criticism of the war effort.
"We have made progress in Afghanistan because there are men and women in uniform who have been willing to fight and die for Afghanistan's sovereignty and their right to govern and secure themselves," Panetta told reporters aboard his plane to Latin America.
Panetta noted that 2,000 U.S. troops were among those who had been killed in the war, which has been spearheaded by the United States, NATO allies and the Afghanistan government.
"Those lives were lost fighting the right enemy, not the wrong enemy," Panetta said. "And I think it would be helpful if the president every once and awhile expressed his thanks for the sacrifices that have been made by those who have fought and died for Afghanistan, rather than criticizing them."
The remarks came a day after Karzai told a news conference in Kabul that the United States was playing a double game in his country by fighting the war in Afghan villages rather than going after those in Pakistan who support insurgents.
"NATO and Afghanistan should fight this war where terrorism stems from," Karzai said in remarks reported by The New York Times. "But the United States is not ready to go and fight the terrorists there. This shows the double game. They say one thing and do something else."
Tensions between Washington and Kabul have risen in recent weeks, driven in part by an increase in attacks by Afghan troops on their U.S. and international counterparts as well as tensions over uncertainty about the coming withdrawal of international forces by the end of 2014.
Panetta's remarks came on a trip that will take him to Peru for bilateral security talks and then to Uruguay for a meeting of defense ministers from across the Americas. Panetta then will travel to Belgium for NATO talks on Afghanistan and other issues.
Panetta said he would assure NATO partners that U.S. General John Allen, the head of international forces in Afghanistan, was working with Afghans to address the problem of insider attacks and that it was important to stick with Allen's plans for drawing down forces in the country by 2014.
"My goal is to make clear to NATO and to our allies that we are taking all steps necessary to confront this issue and that it should not be allowed to deter us from the plan that General Allen put in place," Panetta said.
The U.S. defense secretary said the recent collapse in the value of Iran's currency and unrest in that country showed that the economic sanctions imposed over Tehran's nuclear program were beginning to have an impact.
"The whole purpose of applying the sanctions has been to put pressure on the regime in Iran to come to the table and negotiate our concern with regards to their nuclear program," he said.
"I think the fact that there are these demonstrations reflects that people are feeling the impact," Panetta added. "I would hope that the combination of all of this would convince the regime and the government there to engage in serious negotiations."
Asked about the anger from Syrian rebels over the failure of the West to intervene more aggressively in their effort to topple President Bashar al-Assad, Panetta said the conflict was "difficult and it's challenging."
He said the United States was providing non-lethal help and working with other countries in the region that are providing lethal assistance to the rebels.
"We have got to continue the international effort to do everything we can to try to make sure that Assad steps down," Panetta said, "and I think ultimately that they will recognize that the United States is doing everything we can to try to assist them in this effort."
(Editing by Paul Simao)