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US defense secretary arrives in Afghanistan

Posted on Dec 12, 10:50PM | IANS

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta Wednesday paid an unannounced visit to Afghanistan to consult with NATO military commanders and President Hamid Karzai about the future role of the US in the country as coalition troops pull out by 2014, media reports said.

During his stay in Afghanistan, Panetta will hold talks with top commanders of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) stationed in the country, Xinhua reported citing private TV channel Tolo.

The US has reportedly decided to keep some of its troops in Afghanistan after 2014 when the ISAF leaves the conflict-ridden nation after handing over charge to Afghan forces. Around 68,000 US troops remain in Afghanistan.

"I look forward to a first-hand view. This will help me as we set the groundwork for the decisions that have to be made by the president with regards to our enduring presence," the Washington Post quoted Panetta as saying.

Panetta, a former CIA director who has visited Afghanistan eight times in the past four years, said he was heartened by what he described as signs of progress.

"It is clear to me that we are today in a far better place than we were four years ago, despite some very real challenges that remain in the region," he said.

The challenges include endemic corruption, weak governance, insurgent safe havens in Pakistan and "a resilient Taliban", he said.