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Dispute arises over Afghan endgame

US, Germany at odds on whose troops will stay

BRUSSELS — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his NATO counterparts are considering leaving 8,000 to 12,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014, but a dispute arose Friday between the US and German defense officials over whether that contingent would be an international force or an American one.

The conflicting accounts came as NATO defense ministers gathered here to discuss the endgame of the 11-year-old war in Afghanistan. President 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.

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German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere told reporters Panetta had informed him at the Brussels meeting that the United States would leave between 8,000 and 10,000 troops in the war-torn country at the end of 2014.

But Panetta, speaking to reporters later, called de Maiziere’s comments inaccurate.

Panetta, who will leave Obama’s Cabinet when his successor is confirmed, told reporters that he and the NATO partners instead 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.

‘‘The reports that the US told allies that we are considering 8,000 to 12,000 US troops after 2014 are not correct,’’ Little said. ‘‘A range of 8,000 to 12,000 troops was discussed as the possible size of the overall NATO mission, not the US contribution.’’

Little said Obama had not yet decided on the size of the post-2014 force in Afghanistan.

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 United States 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 United States is providing about $5.7 billion of that.

Panetta said Friday that he can defend that spending to Congress because it would give the United States more flexibility and savings as it withdraws troops from Afghanistan.

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