WASHINGTON — The U.S. and its NATO allies revealed Friday they may keep as many as 12,000 troops in Afghanistan after the combat mission ends next year, largely American forces tasked with hunting down remnants of al-Qaida and helping Afghan forces with their own security.
Patience with the 11-year-old war has grown thin in the U.S. and Europe, yet Washington and its allies feel they cannot pick up and leave without risking a repeat of what happened in Afghanistan after Soviet troops withdrew in 1989: Attention turned elsewhere, the Taliban grabbed power and al-Qaida found refuge.
In disclosing that he and his NATO counterparts were discussing a residual force of between 8,000 and 12,000 troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said most allied defense ministers assured him they are committed to remaining part of a U.S.-led coalition.
"I feel very confident that we are going to get a number of nations to make that contribution for the enduring presence," Panetta told a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels at the conclusion of a defense ministers meeting.
The U.S. and its allies have managed to stick together throughout the war, despite differing views. The Europeans have seen the military mission as mainly aimed at promoting stable governance; the Americans have viewed it as mainly combat. Some allies, including France, have already pulled out their combat troops.
The Obama administration has not said how many troops or diplomats it intends to keep in Afghanistan after 2014; it is in the early stages of negotiating a bilateral security agreement with Kabul that would set the legal parameters. There currently are 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, down from a 2010 peak of 100,000.
In addition to targeting terrorists, the post-2014 missions are expected to be defined as training and advising a still-developing Afghan army and police force and providing security for the U.S. and allied civilian and military presence, officials said.
The largely unspoken assumption on which the post-2014 plan is built is that Afghanistan's own forces will be strong enough to hold off the Taliban on their own starting in 2015 and to prevent the country's relapse into civil war. The worry is that if the Taliban regained power they would allow al-Qaida to return in large numbers, defeating the original purpose of the U.S. military action in 2001.
It's a touchy topic at this stage of a still-unfolding war, with Afghans fearful of being abandoned by their foreign partners and Washington and its NATO allies wary of committing too heavily to a corrupt Kabul government facing an uncertain future.
Budget pressures in the U.S. and Europe also complicate the outlook.
"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," Panetta 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."
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