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Panetta in Kabul to weigh future US troop levels

13 December, 2012

KABUL: US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta flew into Afghanistan on Wednesday to confer with commanders about how many American troops should remain in the country after most combat forces withdraw in 2014.

Panetta's unannounced visit comes as President Barack Obama moves to wind down the unpopular 11-year war, weighing the pace of a troop withdrawal and a future follow-on force after the NATO-led mission is due to end. With Obama poised to make key decisions, Panetta said he wanted to discuss options on troop numbers with the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General John Allen.

"There will begin to be a drawdown that will take us toward the end of 2014," Panetta said during a talk with soldiers and airmen at a US air base in Kuwait. "At that time, the agreement is that we'll have an enduring presence that will continue in Afghanistan. "The size of that enduring presence is something that the president is going to be considering in these next few weeks to determine exactly what that will be."

There is growing speculation about the size of a post-2014 force. There are signs that White House advisers are pushing for less than 10,000 while military officers favour a larger presence of up to 15,000 soldiers. The Los Angeles Times reported the Obama administration was considering no more than 9,000 troops to remain on the ground after 2014, under a plan that would rely on Bagram airfield while turning over large bases in the south and east to the Afghan government.

Panetta arrived for his two-day visit from Kuwait. He will hear a progress report on handing security to Afghan forces as well as fledgling negotiations for an accord with the Afghan government on the terms of a future US military role. Any post-2014 force would have to be agreed by Kabul and US officials want legal protections for American and other foreign troops, similar to agreements in other countries that host US soldiers. Washington recalled all its troops from Iraq after Baghdad refused to grant US soldiers immunity from prosecution.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is due to hold talks with Panetta, warned last week that his government might suspend negotiations on the future US force unless Washington hands over custody of all detainees held at Bagram prison. Panetta told reporters earlier in the trip that US and Afghan officials were working to resolve the dispute over inmates at Bagram. But he said US and other Western officials worry that some detainees might be released and then return to the battlefield.

Officials said Panetta was not expected to discuss a sex scandal that has ensnared the outgoing commander in Afghanistan, General Allen. The Pentagon inspector general is investigating potentially "inappropriate" email exchanges between Allen and Florida woman Jill Kelley, who is linked to the scandal that forced the resignation last month of CIA director David Petraeus, the former four-star general.

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