ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT OVER THE PACIFIC — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Monday the Obama administration is nearing a decision in the next few weeks on how many U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan — and for what purposes — after the U.S.-led combat mission ends in 2014.
Mr. Panetta told reporters aboard his plane en route from Hawaii to Australia that Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has developed several options on a post-2014 presence, which the Pentagon and White House are reviewing. He would not reveal what troop levels are being considered, but it is thought that at least several thousand could be needed for several years beyond 2014.
"My hope is that we'll be able to complete this process in the next few weeks," Mr. Panetta said.
The decision will depend in part of the Afghan government's willingness to permit a post-2014 U.S. military presence and to provide legal guarantees for those troops that are acceptable to Washington.
Once that decision is made, U.S. officials have said they will set a timetable for reducing troop levels between now and the end of 2014. There now are about 67,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and their mission is evolving from combat to advising, assisting and training Afghan forces.
A post-2014 U.S. military presence also would be expected to include hunting and killing members of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan.
Mr. Panetta also was asked about his personal future at the Pentagon and while he declined to reveal his plans, he suggested he still had work to do on the job he took in July 2011.
"It's no secret that at some point I'd like to get back [home] to California," he said, though he went on to add that a number of important defense issues await resolution, including the budget impasse and Afghanistan, suggesting that he would not leave immediately.
"Right now, my goal is to basically meet my responsibilities with regard to dealing with those issues," Mr. Panetta said.
Pressed to say whether he would rule out staying for all four years of a second Obama term, he replied, "Who the hell knows?"
Asked about David Petraeus' resignation as CIA director over revelations that he had an affair with his biographer, Mr. Panetta said he saw it as a "very sad situation to have him end his career like that." Mr. Panetta was CIA director before Mr. Petraeus.
"I think he took the right step" by resigning, Mr. Panetta added.
Mr. Panetta was beginning a weeklong trip to Asia to meet with his counterparts in Australia, Thailand and Cambodia. He said this was an important expression of the Obama administration's commitment to deepening ties in the region and developing more security partnerships.
For decades, American administrations have fought the perception among Asians that Washington paid too little attention to their security interests. This view was reinforced during the years of U.S. focus on Iraq, and it persists even as the war in Afghanistan winds down.