HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii — White House and Pentagon officials hope to determine within weeks the number of U.S. troops that will remain for the long term in Afghanistan after the bulk of U.S. forces come home in 2014, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Monday.
That number will in turn determine the pace of the drawdown over the next two years for the 68,000 U.S. forces currently in Afghanistan. Administration officials have never publicly discussed what number might remain, although in Iraq, U.S. commanders originally wanted as many as 20,000 troops to stay behind, but a deal with the Iraqi government collapsed and all U.S. forces came home late last year.
Panetta said that Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, was overseeing the process.
“Gen. Allen has worked on several options that we are now reviewing and working with the White House on,” Panetta said. “And my hope is that we will be able to complete this process in the next few weeks.”
The number, Panetta said, will be based on how many forces are needed for counterterrorism — that is, in commando raids like the one that killed Osama bin Laden — as well as for training and providing air transport and other support to the Afghan security forces.
In the past year, as a record number of U.S. forces have been killed in attacks by their Afghan partners, there has been a growing sense among some in the administration that U.S. troops should come home sooner rather than later. At the same time there is a concern that a faster withdrawal pace will signal defeat.
Panetta made his remarks to reporters on his plane on the way to Australia, the first stop on a weeklong trip aimed at strengthening U.S. military relationships in the Pacific and Asia. Panetta, along with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, is to attend a U.S.-Australian security and diplomatic meeting in Perth on Tuesday and Wednesday. Panetta is then to travel to Thailand and a summit of Southeast Asian nations in Cambodia before stops in both countries by President Barack Obama and Clinton.
One of Panetta’s main messages to nations in the region is that the administration’s “pivot” to Asia is real and bolstered by a commitment to military spending in the region. But defense officials say that what they prefer to call the “rebalancing” to Asia would be undermined by deep cuts to the Pentagon budget should Congress not reach a fiscal deal by the end of the year.
George E. Little, the Pentagon press secretary, said that such a failure “at least temporarily could put our rebalance off balance.”