BRUSSELS, BELGIUM— U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says NATO allies are considering leaving between 8,000 and 12,000 international troops in Afghanistan after 2014.
The force would be left to help Afghans maintain stability in the country after most international troops pull out by the end of 2014.
The U.S. has said it has made no decision yet on how many of its troops will stay. Germany's defense minister offered a differing account, telling reporters Friday that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had mentioned 8,000 to 12,000 U.S. troops would remain.
At a briefing before boarding his flight back to Washington, Panetta countered those remarks.
“That report is not correct. We did discuss a range of options and what we discussed was a range of options that would be directed to the NATO force overall, which includes both the U.S. force contribution that we would make, plus what other NATO countries would contribute as well,” said Panetta.
U.S. officials say the range of international troops to remain - including Americans - is between 8,000 and 12,000.
At the meeting this week, NATO officials voiced concerns about members' shrinking defense budgets and the ability of the alliance to conduct future operations. Panetta, in his parting remarks, had a warning.
"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," said Panetta. "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."
This meeting was to be the debut of former senator Chuck Hagel as the new U.S. defense secretary. However, U.S. lawmakers have delayed Hagel's confirmation, which required Panetta to put off his retirement and make the trip to NATO headquarters.