KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - President Obama will soon decide how many U.S. troops he wants to keep in Afghanistan after the U.S.-led coalition military mission ends in December 2014, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday as he opened two days of consultations with top U.S. commanders and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Panetta offered no clues to what Obama may decide, but other officials have indicated that the White House is considering plans that call for 6,000 to 10,000 U.S. troops to stay for several years after 2014 in order to keep Afghanistan on a path toward stability and to prevent Al-Qaida and affiliated terrorist groups from re-emerging as a force. The United States now has about 66,000 troops here, along with about 35,000 from allied nations. Obama also must decide how quickly to reduce the U.S. force.
White House officials said the president's decision was not expected before year's end. His announcement could be timed to a meeting with Karzai in Washington early in 2013. The Afghan leader said last month that he had accepted Obama's invitation to visit the White House "at his earliest convenience."
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 on Thursday. Allen, who is being investigated by the Pentagon's inspector general for e-mails he exchanged with a Florida socialite, met Panetta upon his arrival in Kabul. Allen did not talk to reporters.