US signals likely delay in troop pullout from Afghanistan

KABUL (AFP) - President Barack Obama's new Pentagon chief said Saturday the United States was seriously considering slowing the pace of a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan after talks with Afghan leaders in Kabul.

US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter's comments offered the clearest sign yet that Washington was ready to delay the closure of some bases and retain more troops on the ground after appeals by Afghanistan's new President Ashraf Ghani and advice from commanders.

To safeguard "hard-won" progress, Obama "is considering a number of options to reinforce our support for President Ghani's security strategy, including possible changes to the timeline for our drawdown of US troops," Mr Carter said.

"That could mean taking another look at the timing and sequencing of base closures to ensure we have the right array of coalition capabilities," he said at a joint news conference with Mr Ghani.

Apart from troop numbers, the United States and its allies would need to make "long-term commitments in resources, equipment and other support" to ensure the success of the Afghan forces, he said.

Only days after taking the helm as defence secretary, Mr Carter paid an unannounced visit to a country where US troops have fought for more than 13 years but are now in a scaled back role.

Carter's trip comes as Mr Obama faces a decision about the timetable for a troop drawdown in Afghanistan. Under the current plan, the 10,000-strong US force is due to drop to roughly 5,000 by the end of 2015 and then pull out altogether by the time Obama leaves office in two years.

But the Obama administration already has delayed the pace of the withdrawal, allowing 1,000 additional American forces to remain this year.

And the US commander on the ground, General John Campbell, has suggested he favours slowing the drawdown further, though the details of the possible options before Obama remain unclear.

Afghan leaders and some lawmakers have urged Obama to reconsider the withdrawal timetable, warning that an early US exit could jeopardise security and international aid.

Mr Carter said as part of the review of the pullout plan, Washington was also was "rethinking the details of the counter-terrorism mission" that currently targets Al-Qaeda militants with raids by US and Afghan special forces and drone strikes.

He said the single most important factor that had prompted the review of the troop withdrawal timetable was the formation of a unity government last year led by Mr Ghani, which he said had introduced "certainty" and "predictability".

"That's something we couldn't have counted on a few months ago," he said, calling it "major change".

On the first day of a two-day visit, Mr Carter held talks with the US commander in Kabul, Campbell, as well as General Lloyd Austin, head of US Central Command which oversees American forces in the Middle East and Central Asia.