By Mike Mount, Senior National Security Advisor
The Obama administration will make a decision within weeks on how many U.S. forces will remain in Afghanistan as a residual force after the final combat troops leave at the end of 2014, according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Panetta made the remarks on the way to Australia and Asia to meet with defense ministers in that region.
He said that top NATO commander Gen. John Allen had recently submitted various options for the final stage of the U.S. presence there. The Pentagon and White House would have to review the recommendations before deciding on a final plan.
"My hope is that we'll be able to complete this process in the next few weeks ... I'm confident that we'll be able to get to the right number that we're going to need for the post-2014 enduring presence," Panetta told the traveling press on his airplane while en route to Australia on the first leg of his trip.
Panetta said that various options would depend on the various types of missions U.S. forces would take part in after the 2014 withdrawal. The expectation is that the remaining U.S. forces will participate in follow-on training of Afghan security forces, while a smaller number will remain to conduct a counter-terrorism mission against al Qaeda.
"All of those (options) are being carefully reviewed," Panetta said.
Still to be decided by the administration is the timetable - the pace - at which U.S. troops will be coming out of Afghanistan over the next two years.
There are about 67,000 U.S. troops currently inside Afghanistan.
During the meeting with the traveling press Panetta was asked about whether he would be staying on as defense secretary in the second term of the Obama administration.
"There are a lot of challenges right now regarding defense issues in Washington - sequestration, budget, Afghanistan - and I think the president and I are working very closely to make sure we meet those defense challenges Right now my goal to meet responsibilities," Panetta said.
"That's the most important focus."