BRUSSELS - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his NATO counterparts are considering leaving 8,000 to 12,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014, but it was unclear how much of that force would be American, U.S. officials said Friday.
A dispute flared, but was quickly dissipated at the NATO defense ministers gathering here to discuss the endgame of the 11-year-old war in Afghanistan.
German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere told reporters that a post-2014 force of 8,000 to 10,000 American troops would remain in Afghanistan. Panetta denied that, saying the force of 8,000 to 12,000 would be international and the makeup was still under discussion.
Within hours, de Maiziere said his comments were "misleading," and that the force remaining would be international.
President Barack Obama has said that the last combat troops will leave Afghanistan on Dec. 31, 2014, leaving the bulk of the country's security in the hands of the Afghans.
Panetta, who will leave Obama's Cabinet when his successor is confirmed, told reporters that he and the NATO partners talked about ranges of options for the post-2014 troop force. And he said the figures reflected contributions that other nations would make, in addition to the United States.
"There's no question in the current budget environment, with deep cuts in European defense spending and the kind of political gridlock that we see in the United States now with regards to our own budget, is putting at risk our ability to effectively act together," he said. "As I prepare to step down as secretary of defense, I do fear that the alliance will soon be, if it is not already, stretched too thin."
His spokesman, George Little, told reporters that the range for an international force was 8,000 to 12,000, and that Obama had not yet decided on the size of the post-2014 force in Afghanistan.
"We will continue to discuss with allies and the Afghans how we can best carry out two basic missions: targeting the remnants of al-Qaida and its affiliates, and training and equipping Afghan forces," he said.
Panetta said officials are planning to leave troops in all sectors of the country as well as in Kabul. Pentagon officials have said the military has mapped out plans to carry on its mission of training and advising the Afghan forces and also leave a small counterterrorism force to battle insurgents.
When asked about troop numbers, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters that no decision had yet been made.
The Obama administration is considering a plan to maintain 352,000 Afghan troops for the next five years as part of an effort to maintain security and help convince Afghanistan that America and its allies will not abandon it once combat troops leave in 2014, senior alliance officials said Thursday. NATO officials are also widely considering that option.
Such a change, if NATO endorses it, could increase the costs to the U.S. and allies by more than $2 billion a year, at a time when most are struggling with budget cuts and fiscal woes. Last May, NATO agreed to underwrite an Afghan force of about 230,000, at a cost of about $4.1 billion a year after 2014. It costs about $6.5 billion this year to fund the current Afghan force of 352,000, and the U.S. is providing about $5.7 billion of that.
Panetta said Friday that he can defend that spending to Congress because it would give the U.S. more flexibility and savings as it withdraws troops from Afghanistan.
Maintaining the larger troop strength could bolster the confidence of the Afghan forces and make it clear that NATO is committed to an enduring relationship with Afghanistan, a senior NATO official said.
In private meetings with other defense ministers, Panetta warned allies that Washington's fiscal impasse will have repercussions abroad, as impending budget cuts force the military to scale back its training and presence overseas.
Many of his meetings, however, centered on the plans to wind down the war in Afghanistan, including the withdrawal of 34,000 U.S. troops over the next year and the transfer of security responsibilities to the Afghan forces.
According to an Obama administration official, the Pentagon plans to reduce the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to about 60,500 by the end of May; then to 52,500 by November, keeping a relatively stable number of troops there during the peak fighting season. The sharpest cuts in U.S. troop strength will come over the winter months as the remaining 20,500 leave after the main fighting season. There currently are about 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Panetta acknowledged those ranges of numbers on Friday, but also added that the U.S. would maintain the 34,000 through the Afghan elections, then withdraw the final combat troops toward the end of 2014.
The administration officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the numbers publicly.
This is Panetta's fifth visit to Brussels for a NATO meeting - a trip he never intended to take. Expectations were that defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, would be confirmed by the Senate last week and he would travel to the meeting.
Hagel's nomination stalled, however, as it got caught up in senators' complaints about the attack in Benghazi, which left four Americans dead, including the ambassador. There are indications now that Hagel has support from enough senators to be confirmed next week.
Associated Press writers Don Melvin and Julie Pace contributed to this report.