U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (second from left) and British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond (second from right) lead their delegations Feb. 22 during a bilateral meeting at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Defense Ministers Meetings at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. (Chip Somodevilla / AFP pool)
BRUSSELS — NATO may station up to 12,000 troops in Afghanistan to train and assist Kabul’s forces after the alliance’s combat mission there against the Taliban ends in 2014, U.S. officials said Friday.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said NATO was considering a deployment of between 8,000 and 12,000 troops, including any U.S. contribution, but no final decision has yet been made. Reports of a U.S. presence of 8,000 to 12,000 troops “are not correct,” he said.
President Barack Obama “is still reviewing options and has not made a decision about the size of a possible U.S. presence after 2014,” he said, adding that discussions will continue with NATO allies and Afghanistan.
Earlier, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had declined to give precise figures for the post-2014 mission and stressed that NATO was looking at a variety of options and seeking to maintain the most flexibility. Panetta, who also rejected the report of 8,000 to 12,000 U.S. troops being involved, said the training and advisory mission would have a presence throughout Afghanistan.
There “will be a presence in Kabul and in the North, South, West and East,” he told a press conference at the end of a two-day NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels. He also detailed the U.S. troop withdrawal program after Obama last month announced that 34,000 soldiers — just more than half the current number — would be brought home within 12 months.
U.S. forces will be largely maintained during the upcoming Afghan fighting season and then reduced to about 50,000 by November and 32,000 by February, staying at that level during elections, after which the remainder would leave, he said.