US defence chief in Kabul for talks on future US presence

Reuters , Wednesday 12 Dec 2012

Some sources think that US defence officials are considering leaving as few as 6,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta arrived on an unannounced visit to Kabul on Wednesday for talks with military commanders ahead of a decision on how large a US military presence to keep in the country after the NATO mission ends in 2014.

Panetta has not disclosed how large a force he thinks will be needed, but one US official has told Reuters that figures as low as 6,000 US troops were under consideration.

"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 before bording his flight to Kabul.

Panetta told reporters travelling with him that he would meet the top US commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, to discuss options being prepared for Obama's consideration. Obama, he said, would hopefully come to a decision "in the next few weeks".

Obama, fresh from a re-election victory, has made clear his intention to end the 11-year-old war and bring the vast majority US forces home by the end of 2014.

There are 68,000 US troops in the country, a figure expected to gradually decline over the next two years, despite concerns that the Taliban remains a resilient enemy.

A report released by the Pentagon this week noted a slight rise in Taliban attacks between April and September this year, compared with 2011.

At the same time, it said the insurgency's refuges in Pakistan, endemic corruption and the limited capacity of the Afghan state were the greatest risks to Afghanistan's long-term stability.

Panetta, on his fifth trip to Afghanistan since becoming defense secretary last year, said he would meet President Hamid Karzai.

He expressed optimism in the growing capabilities of Afghan security forces, despite concerns in the United States that few units can fully operate without US military support.

Panetta also noted that the number of so-called insider attacks against US forces by Afghan security forces had declined, from a high of about 12 in August to two in November.

Those attacks, some of which were claimed by the Taliban, were deeply demoralizing and led Allen to revise security protocols and bolster sensitivity training of NATO forces to avoid accidentally provoking their Afghan counterparts.

"So the steps that were put in place to try to deal with that threat I believe have been effective in trying to lower the incidents of insider attacks," he told reporters at the start of this week's trip.

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