AFGHANISTAN

With­drawal rate not yet de­cided, de­fense sec­re­tary says.

Austin American-Statesman - - THE SECOND FRONT - AP

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).

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