ALI AL-SALEM AIR BASE, Kuwait – U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday that President Obama will decide in the next few weeks how many U.S. troops will stay in Afghanistan after the combat mission ends in December 2014.
Panetta did not reveal what options Obama is considering, but officials have said he may settle on a figure between 6,000 and 10,000. There currently are about 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The post-2014 mission is expected to focus on counterterrorism and advising Afghan security forces.
Panetta spoke Wednesday to about 100 U.S. service members inside an aircraft hangar at this desert base west of Kuwait City. He thanked them for their service and emphasized that the U.S. is winding down its involvement in lengthy wars.
On Tuesday, Panetta met with top Kuwaiti government officials.
This is likely to be Panetta's last visit to the Middle East before he retires. He has not said publicly when he is quitting to return to his native California, but it is widely forecast for early next year, possibly in January.
In recent months, following the administration's announced strategic policy "pivot" to Asia, 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 U.S. military has about 50,000 troops in the Middle East. That includes about 5,000 on each of two aircraft carrier battle groups.
Kuwait has been regarded as an important U.S. defense partner in the years since Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, prompting US military intervention and the start of a two-decade confrontation with Iraq's Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi leader was toppled in 2003, but insurgents kept U.S. forces tied down there until December 2011.