KABUL // The US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, arrived in Afghanistan yesterday for an unannounced visit to consult with top commanders and the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.
The 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 in December 2014.
While security has generally improved, the Afghan government's ability to effectively govern and to root out corruption is in great doubt. Peace talks with the Taliban are on a back burner.
Mr Panetta has not disclosed how large a US force he thinks will be required to remain, but one US official has said that figures as low as 6,000 US troops were under consideration.
"The size of that enduring presence is something that the president is going to be considering over these next few weeks," Mr Panetta told troops in Kuwait before boarding his flight to Kabul.
Mr Panetta told reporters travelling with him that he would meet the top US commander in Afghanistan, Gen John Allen, to discuss options being prepared for Mr Obama's consideration. Mr Obama, he said, would hopefully come to a decision "in the next few weeks".
Mr Obama has made clear his intention to end the 11-year-old war and bring the vast majority of US forces home by the end of 2014.
Mr Panetta did not reveal what options Mr Obama is considering, but officials have suggsted that he may settle on troop count of between 6,000 and 10,000. There are currently about 66,000 US troops in Afghanistan.
The post-2014 mission is expected to focus on counterterrorism and advising Afghan security forces.
Before flying to Afghanistan, Mr Panetta spoke to about 100 US service members inside an aircraft hangar at a desert base west of Kuwait City. He thanked them for their service and emphasised that the US is winding down its involvement in lengthy wars.
In recent months, following the administration's announced strategic policy "pivot" to Asia, Mr Panetta has been at pains to assert that doing more in Asia and the Pacific does not have to mean doing less in the Middle East. He said the US military has about 50,000 troops in the Middle East. That includes about 5,000 on each of two aircraft-carrier battle groups.
* Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse