- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 12, 2012

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Obama will decide shortly how many U.S. troops he wants to keep in Afghanistan after the U.S.-led coalition mission ends in December 2014, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Wednesday as he opened two days of consultations with top U.S. commanders and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Mr. Panetta offered no clues to what Mr. Obama may decide. But other officials have indicated the White House is considering plans that call for between 6,000 and 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 Qaeda and affiliated terrorist groups from re-emerging as a significant force.

The U.S. now has about 66,000 troops in Afghanistan, along with about 35,000 from allied nations.

Mr. Obama also must decide how quickly to reduce the U.S. force from 66,000 to whatever post-2014 level he deems necessary and Mr. Karzai considers acceptable.

Mr. Panetta had dinner with Marine Gen. John R. Allen, the top coalition commander, as well as other senior commanders, and he was scheduled to meet with Mr. Karzai on Thursday.

Gen. Allen, who is under investigation by the Pentagon’s inspector general for possibly inappropriate correspondence with a Florida woman linked to the David H. Petraeus sex scandal, met Mr. Panetta upon his arrival at the Kabul airport. Gen. Allen did not talk to reporters.

Before the dinner, Mr. Panetta had a one-hour meeting with Gen. Allen and other senior military officers.

Mr. Panetta told the commanders he would be meeting with Afghan leaders to “try to tee up” the decisions Mr. Obama will have to make on future U.S. troop levels, according to media in the room before the meeting started.

Mr. Panetta’s visit comes at a difficult juncture in the Western coalition’s efforts to shift more security responsibilities to Afghan forces so the combat mission can end without a Taliban resurgence.

While security has generally improved this year, Afghan forces still lack some important capabilities, and the government’s ability to effectively govern beyond Kabul and to root out corruption is in great doubt.

Marine Maj. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, the coalition’s deputy chief of staff for operations, said in an interview with reporters traveling with Mr. Panetta that coalition commanders are pushing the Afghans to do more on their own.

The idea is to push them “right to the brink of failure” so that they are ready to handle the Taliban once they no longer have large numbers of international troops to support them, he said.

“What we say is we want them to see failure, we want them to smell it, we want them to taste it, we just don’t want them to achieve it,” Gen. Nicholson said. “We will push them as far as we can to be self-sufficient.”

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