Withdrawal rate not yet decided, defense secretary says.
KABUL, AfghAnistAn — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Wednesday to meet with senior commanders and discuss proposals for future troop levels that he said would be presented for President Barack Obama’s consideration in the next few weeks.
Although it is traditional for a defense secretary to visit troops in December ahead of the holidays, Panetta said a central goal of this trip was to push forward deployment proposals now being prepared by Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan.
Those options, designed to guide U.S. force levels after the NATO mission ends on the last day of 2014, should be presented to the president “within the next few weeks,” Panetta told reporters.
He said that only after decisions were made on what the U.S. force levels could be after 2014, when NATO hands the security mission to Afghans, would Obama settle on the rate of withdrawal over the next two years to reach that number.
Allen remains in command here while the Defense Department inspector general scrutinizes emails he exchanged with a Florida socialite, although his nomination to be the top NATO commander is on hold. He held private meetings with the defense secretary Wednesday night but, breaking with normal practice, was not expected to brief the traveling press corps.
Any continuing U.S. presence after 2014 — which would have to be negotiated with the Afghan government — is expected to focus on training and supporting Afghan security forces, and is likely to include a small U.S. counterterrorism force with an eye on al-Qaida and senior insurgent leaders.
The president has made no decision, and a range of options are being prepared, officials said. The U.S. counterterrorism force might number fewer than 1,000, part of a U.S. military mission that would probably total no more than 10,000 troops, despite the desire of some officers for a larger force.
The mission in Afghanistan, Panetta said, is “on a far better path” than it was four years ago.
But he acknowledged that significant challenges remained. He specifically cited unreliable governance, continuing corruption, the existence of safe havens for insurgents in Pakistan and a resilient Taliban insurgency within Afghanistan’s borders.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta meets with commanders, including Marine Gen. John Allen (third from right).