US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta met top commanders in Kabul on Wednesday to finalize options for President Barack Obama on how many troops to keep in Afghanistan after the NATO mission ends in 2014 and the war is declared over.
Panetta has not disclosed how large a force he believes will be needed, but one U.S. official has told Reuters that figures as low as 6,000 U.S. troops were under consideration. President Barack Obama could make a decision in the coming weeks.
General John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said before closed door talks that he looked forward to a candid conversation with Panetta. The defence secretary told Allen and other commanders he was trying to "tee up" options for Obama, reports Reuters.
"The size of that enduring presence is something that the president is going to be considering over these next few weeks," Panetta told troops in Kuwait earlier in the day before boarding his flight to Kabul.
Panetta, on his fifth trip to Afghanistan as defence secretary, was scheduled to meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Fresh from a re-election victory, Obama has made clear his intention to end the 11-year-old war and bring the vast majority U.S. forces home by the end of 2014.
But his decision is complicated by a still-resilient Taliban and intelligence showing its al Qaeda allies aim to return in larger numbers to Afghanistan. Worries about the capabilities of Afghan security forces have also raised questions about whether they can operate on their own if too many U.S. troops withdraw.
U.S. Major General Lawrence Nicholson, who runs day to day operations for the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, acknowledged that Afghan security forces had their share of imperfections but played down concerns about the end-2014 deadline.
A former commander in Iraq, Nicholson praised Afghan forces, who he said were better fighters than the Iraqis.
"What's it going to look like on 1 January, 2015? It will be imperfect. It will be flawed. It will have warts," he said, briefing reporters travelling with Panetta. "But it's going to work."
One factor that might cause the U.S. military to keep more troops in Afghanistan would be the need to supply a big stock of "enablers" for the Afghan forces.
But Nicholson said his goal was to make the Afghan forces self-sufficient, with the exception perhaps of assisting them with close air support.
"Any enablers that we have in the country after 1 January '15 are to be here in support of coalition forces. They'll be here for us," Nicholson said. "We've got 24 months to get this right and we're well on the road."
There are 68,000 U.S. troops in the country, a figure expected to gradually decline over the next two years at a pace that will be decided after the size of the post-2014 mission has been set.