KANDAHAR - Pentagon chief Ashton Carter headed to southern Afghanistan on Sunday to review plans to withdraw US forces in a volatile area that has long preoccupied American commanders.

In his first visit abroad days after he took over as US defence secretary, Carter met senior officers and troops at Kandahar airfield, a key base that hosts US special forces and advisers as well as helicopters and other aircraft. After talks in Kabul with President Ashraf Ghani on Saturday, Carter made clear that President Barack Obama’s administration was considering slowing down a planned timetable for a troop pullout.

The current plan would reduce the existing force of more than 10,000 to about 5,500 by the end of the year, and then pull out all troops in two years’ time - when Obama’s term ends. Under that blueprint, US forces would have to withdraw from Kandahar airfield this year, but Carter suggested the timing of base closures and troop withdrawals could be reviewed. Kandahar base serves as a jumping off point for special operations forces targeting Al-Qaeda and Taliban figures, as well as for drones and surveillance aircraft. During a surge of troops in 2010, thousands of US forces poured into Kandahar and Helmand province to try to turn the tide in the war against the Taliban, which was toppled from power after a US-led invasion in 2001.

Carter flew to Kandahar amid intense fighting in neighboring Helmand, where the Taliban have sought to regain ground lost during the US-led surge of forces in recent years. Afghan security forces have launched a major counter-offensive near Sangin in the past two weeks in Helmand, involving troops from three army corps and helicopters, US officers said. The offensive featured about 2,000 Afghan troops and Russian-made helicopters launching air strikes in support of ground forces, officers said.

General John Campbell, the US commander in Afghanistan, said the operation was entirely “Afghan-led and Afghan planned” and unprecedented for the Afghan forces in terms of its complexity. “I’m really happy with what’s happening in north Helmand right now,” he told reporters Saturday. But he said he could not provide more details as the operation was ongoing. The Taliban reportedly managed to penetrate a major Afghan base in Helmand in November but were repulsed after heavy losses. The former Camp Bastion base was a hub for NATO forces until it was turned over to local forces in October.

US CONVENES ANTI-IS WAR COUNCIL IN KUWAIT

New Pentagon chief Ashton Carter will hold talks Monday in Kuwait with top US commanders and diplomats to discuss the war effort against the Islamic State jihadist group, officials said.

Carter flew to Kuwait City from Afghanistan on Sunday to chair the extraordinary meeting that will see more than two dozen senior military officers and ambassadors gather at the sprawling US Army base of Camp Arifjan, officials said.

Carter, an experienced Pentagon technocrat who took office last week, “wants it to be an open conversation regardless of rank,” a senior US defence official told reporters.

The meeting was not intended to produce a new strategy but to allow Carter to better understand the challenge posed by the jihadists and the range of efforts aimed at defeating them, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Carter will be looking for an update on all facets of the campaign on both the military and diplomatic front, including the Iraqi government’s efforts to recruit Sunnis into the fight against the IS extremists, the official said.

The talks also will examine how to counter the IS group across the region.

Carter likely will raise questions about “what it means when we have groups swearing allegiance to ISIL in Libya, in Egypt, in Afghanistan,” said the official using another acronym for IS and “how are we thinking about the next few years of the counter-terrorism fight,” the official said.

The meeting will include the commander running the anti-IS campaign, Lieutenant General James Terry, as well as the heads of US Central Command, Africa Command, European command, Special Operations Command and Joint Special Operations Command, said Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby.

Diplomats and civilian officials due to take part include John Allen, President Barack Obama’s envoy to the anti-IS coalition as well as the US special envoy to Syria, Daniel Rubinstein, he said.

Washington’s ambassadors to Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will also attend the meeting.

Senior intelligence officials also will be on hand for talks that are meant to transcend bureaucratic divisions and information “stovepipes,” officials said. Carter told reporters before arriving in Kuwait City that he had called the meeting because he was “trying to assess the situation in Iraq, Syria, and the region more generally”. The IS threat was “a regional issue”, Carter said, “and I wanted to have all of that expertise represented”.

On his first trip abroad as defence secretary after being sworn in last Tuesday, Carter came to Kuwait after a two-day visit to Afghanistan, consulting commanders about the pace of a US troop withdrawal.