U.S. and NATO officials are considering a plan to maintain the size of Afghanistan's national security forces at 352,000 for another five years.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta joined his NATO counterparts for the Thursday meeting in Brussels where they discussed the move, which is meant to boost confidence among Afghans who are worried that their country may descend into chaos after most foreign troops depart at the end of next year.
Speaking to a small group of reporters on the sidelines of the meeting, senior NATO officials say the proposal aims to reassure the Afghans that the international community will remain committed to the country's security after the troops leave.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the plan is getting serious consideration even as NATO countries grapple with declining budgets.
“It is easy to make the case that it's better to finance Afghan security forces than to deploy international troops," he said. "From a political point of view, it's better to give the defense of Afghanistan an Afghan face, and from an economic point of view it is actually less expensive to finance Afghan security forces than to deploy foreign troops.”
The United States pays $5.7 billion of the $6.5 billion it costs to maintain the force each year.
The government of President Hamid Karzai had expressed concern after the alliance earlier considered a plan that would reduce Afghan forces to about 240,000 in 2015.
The U.S. and its allies expect to hand over security responsibility to Afghan forces this spring just ahead of this year's fighting season.
U.S. President Barack Obama this month announced that more than half of the 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan will withdraw within one year, but officials have indicated the troops will stay through the fighting season to advise, train, and assist the Afghans.