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Panetta in Afghanistan to Discuss Troop Drawdown

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (R) shakes hands with Marine General John R. Allen (L), commander of International Security Assistance Force, upon Panetta's arrival at International Airport, December 12, 2012.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has arrived in Afghanistan on an unannounced visit that will include talks with President Hamid Karzai.

Panetta arrived in Kabul on Wednesday for consultations with Karzai and top military commanders, including U.S. General John Allen, about troop levels in the country after the international combat mission ends in 2014.

Before arriving in Afghanistan, Panetta told reporters the White House hoped to have a decision soon on the U.S. troop make-up after the withdrawal.

"Part of the reason for this trip is to talk with General Allen and to discuss with him some of the options that are being prepared for the president's considering, with regards to the enduring presence. Our hope is that we can complete that process within the next few weeks," he said.

Panetta traveled to Afghanistan from Kuwait.

About 68,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan. Military officials have called for keeping as many as 15,000 troops in the region after 2014 for training and counterterrorism efforts.

In November, Panetta said the U.S. would need to keep a substantial number of troops in the country to ensure that al-Qaida "never again finds a safe haven." He did not specify how many troops would be needed to achieve this goal. The U.S. and Afghanistan are in the process of negotiating a bilateral security agreement outlining the future U.S. presence in the country.

The defense secretary also noted a decline in the number of attacks by Afghan security forces against U.S. forces but said these so-called insider attacks remained a concern.

In another development, Afghan and coalition forces say they have arrested a Taliban leader who controlled a group of insurgents who had launched attacks on coalition troops and Afghan forces.

Security forces say the unidentified militant leader was involved in planning a suicide attack when he was arrested in Ghazni province on Wednesday.

Some information for this report was provided by AP and AFP.