Reports on NATOs plans for troop levels and support for Afghan forces indicate what the international mission to Afghanistan and particularly U.S. involvement could look like after the alliances combat mission ends in 2014.
Afghan force levels were discussed at a two-day meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, where U.S. officials presented a plan that would keep between 8,000 and 12,000 NATO troops and advisers in the country after the last combat troops leave the war-torn country at the end of 2014. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta dismissed as inaccurate reports that the numbers represented U.S. force levels, although the United States would likely supply the majority of the troops.
A range of 8,000 to 12,000 troops was discussed as the possible size of the overall NATO mission, not the U.S. contribution, his spokesman George Little said.
However, U.S. officials left unanswered how many American troops would remain, but the overall number suggests it will be much smaller than some American commanders have wanted. Proposals have ranged from a smaller force with as few as 3,000 troops to one as high as 23,000 troops.
U.S. officials also disclosed plans for a separate American counterterrorism force of between 2,000 and 4,000 troops working with Afghans against militants.
There are now about 100,000 international troops in Afghanistan, but President Obama intends to withdraw 34,000 of the 66,000 U.S. troops within a year with the rest to follow after the summer ,when fighting is usually the heaviest.
The administration is still negotiating an agreement with Kabul that will allow some forces to remain as trainers and advisers to Afghan security forces, which was also a topic for NATO discussions.
The alliance is considering a fiscal proposal to support 352,000 Afghan troops through 2018, up from 240,000 troops that have been discussed when the NATO mission expires.
Afghans have been assuming a larger role with NATO and U.S. support in protection against Taliban and al-Qaida militants. A larger Afghan force continuing that transition with Afghans in charge of their security is preferable to a foreign presence.
Reducing the NATO role also addresses the Afghan perception of foreign troops as occupiers while increased aid for domestic forces ensures Afghans that they will not be abandoned. The NATO outline offers a way for U.S. and other troops to withdraw without sacrificing the gains that have been made in more than 11 years of war.