U.S. planning on troop levels in Afghanistan next year and beyond has been delayed in protracted discussions with the White House, NATO allies, and the government in Kabul, Pentagon officials said Tuesday.
"I don't have a timeline" for when the White House will sign off on recommendations from Marine Gen. John Allen, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said Pentagon chief spokesman George Little. "That's something we'll be sorting out in the next couple of weeks."
Little said that "there's no stagnation in the process. This is a methodical process." He explained that "the precise timeline has not been nailed down" because "it involves consultations with the Afghan government and allies."
The U.S. has about 66,000 troops in Afghanistan, part of the overall NATO force of about 100,000, and Allen had been expected to detail his recommendations on the way forward to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and President Obama by the end of November.
"The president expects to make a decision soon," Little said, but Allen's assessment has yet to be forwarded to the White House.
Obama has ordered all combat troops to leave by the end of 2014, but the pace of the drawdown has been for the most part left up to Allen. Negotiations are currently underway with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the size of the training, advisory and counter-terrorism force that would remain in Afghanistan after 2014.
Several think tanks have argued that a residual force of at least 30,000 troops would be needed to be effective, but the White House is said to be considering a force of no more than 10,000.
Little said that Panetta "has not arrived at a view" on the pace of the withdrawal or the size of the residual force. He said that those issues did not come up in a teleconference call with Allen Tuesday that focused on the progress in battling al-Qaeda influence in Afghanistan.
Little also rejected use of the word "scandal" in reference to the Defense Department Inspector General's investigation of Allen's voluminous email traffic with Florida socialite Jill Kelley, whose complaint to the FBI led to the resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus over an affair with his biographer.
"Let's not jump to any conclusions here," Little said of Allen's connection to Kelley. He said there were "potentially inappropriate communications" between Allen and Kelley in the 20,000-30,000 pages of documents that the FBI turned over the DOD Inspector General.
Allen's nomination to head the European Command has been held up during the investigation, but Panetta and White House officials have expressed confidence that he ultimately will be confirmed by the Senate.