WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday he was awaiting details from Gen. John Allen, the top commander in Afghanistan, on his plan for bringing home the remaining 23,000 troops sent to Afghanistan during the 2010 surge.
After the weekend's mass killing of Afghan civilians in the southern province of Kandahar, allegedly by an Army staff sergeant, Panetta and other top administration officials said it would have no effect on the war strategy. That does not mean, however, that the planned troop withdrawal won't be accelerated at some stage.
Panetta, speaking to reporters on a flight to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, said that despite recent setbacks, including the burning of Qurans by U.S. soldiers last month and the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians over the weekend, allegedly by a U.S. soldier, there has been no change in plans to complete a troop withdrawal by the end of 2014.
Allen said on Monday that there are about 90,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan now. He said he plans to bring out 23,000 of those by the end of September, as required by President Barack Obama, but Panetta has yet to endorse that exact schedule.
Obama has given Allen no orders on specific troop withdrawals beyond September, except to say there will be a "steady pace" of withdrawals between now and the end of 2014, when Afghan forces are to be fully in charge of the country's security.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that the administration is considering a range of options for further troop reductions after September. One option is for at least 10,000 more to come home by the end of December, and then 10,000 to 20,000 more by June 2013, the Times reported, citing unnamed administration officials.
Asked about the Times report, Pentagon press secretary George Little, who is traveling with Panetta, said, "The analysis on drawdown scenarios isn't yet complete, and the secretary (Panetta) has not been presented with options. It's premature to speculate on any drawdowns beyond those associated with U.S. surge forces in Afghanistan."
Earlier, Panetta said he had not yet seen details of Allen's plan for a drawdown this summer.
"What I am awaiting are General Allen's plans with regards to taking down the remaining 23,000 from the surge," Panetta said. "And, we'll review those plans."