HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii -- White House and Pentagon officials hope to determine within weeks the number of American troops that will remain for the long term in Afghanistan after the bulk of United States forces come home in 2014, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Monday.
That number will in turn determine the pace of the reduction over the next two years of the 68,000 American military personnel currently in Afghanistan. Administration officials have never publicly discussed what number might remain, although in Iraq, American commanders originally wanted as many as 20,000 troops to stay behind, but a deal with the Iraqi government collapsed and all United States forces came home late last year.
Mr. Panetta said that Gen. John Allen, the top American and NATO commander in Afghanistan, was overseeing the process. "General Allen has worked on several options that we are now reviewing and working with the White House on," Mr. Panetta said. "And my hope is that we will be able to complete this process in the next few weeks."
The number, Mr. 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 American troops have been killed in attacks by their Afghan partners, there has been a growing sense among some in the administration that American troops should come home sooner rather than later. At the same time there is a concern that a faster withdrawal pace will signal defeat.
Mr. Panetta made his remarks to reporters on his plane on the way to Australia, the first stop on a weeklong trip aimed at strengthening American military relationships in the Pacific and Asia. Mr. Panetta, along with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, is to attend a United States-Australian security and diplomatic meeting in Perth on Tuesday and Wednesday. Mr. Panetta is then to travel to Thailand and a summit of Southeast Asian nations in Cambodia before stops in both countries by President Obama and Mrs. Clinton.
One of Mr. 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."
In other comments on his plane, Mr. Panetta said the Pentagon was not able to counter the attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi on Sept. 11 as fast as it could have because defense officials were notified after the attack was under way.
"For us to be able to move quickly, we have to have some advance notice that something is going to happen," Mr. Panetta said, "and in this case, we didn't have that."
But no American forces were deployed close enough to Benghazi to get there in time, and Mr. Panetta reiterated that a review of security at American diplomatic posts was under way.
He also said that David H. Petraeus "took the right steps" in resigning as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, a job that Mr. Panetta held in the first two and a half years of Mr. Obama's presidency. "It was a very sad situation to have a distinguished career like that end in this manner," Mr. Panetta said, referring to Mr. Petraeus's decision to step down because of an extramarital affair.
Mr. Panetta said he did not know how long he would remain as defense secretary. "It's no secret that at some point I'd like to get back to California," he said. "It's my home."
Asked if he planned to stay for all of Mr. Obama's second term, Mr. Panetta replied, "Who the hell knows?"world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.