Kabul: President Barack Obama will decide shortly how many US troops he wants to keep in Afghanistan after the US-led coalition military mission ends in December 2014, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said on Wednesday as he opened two days of consultations with top US commanders and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Panetta offered no clues to what Obama may decide, but other officials have indicated the White House is considering plans that call for between 6,000 and 10,000 US troops to stay for several years after 2014 in order to keep Afghanistan on a path toward stability and to prevent al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist groups from re-emerging as a significant force here.
The US now has about 66,000 troops here, along with about 35,000 from allied nations.
Obama also must decide how quickly to reduce the US force from 66,000 to whatever post-2014 level he deems necessary and Karzai considers acceptable.
Panetta had dinner with Gen John Allen, the top coalition commander, as well as other senior commanders, and he was scheduled to meet with Karzai tomorrow.
Allen, who is under investigation by the Pentagon`s inspector general for possibly inappropriate correspondence with a Florida woman linked to the David Petraeus sex scandal, met Panetta upon his arrival at the Kabul airport. Allen did not talk to reporters.
Panetta`s visit comes at a difficult juncture in the Western coalition`s efforts to shift more security responsibilities to Afghan forces so the combat mission can end without a Taliban resurgence.
While security has generally improved this year, Afghan forces still lack some important capabilities and the government`s ability to effectively govern beyond Kabul and to root out corruption is in great doubt.