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.
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."
Panetta is expected to retire as soon as his successor is confirmed. The Senate could vote on the confirmation of former Sen. Chuck Hagel as the next Pentagon chief as early as Wednesday. Panetta is leaving just as Gen. Joseph Dunford is settling in as the successor to Gen. John Allen as commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan.
Another source of anxiety among the allies is Afghanistan's 2014 presidential election; President Hamid Karzai, who has run the country since U.S. forces toppled the Taliban in late 2001, is not running and there is no obvious successor.
Just last week President Barack Obama announced in his State of the Union address that by this time next year 34,000 U.S. troops will have left, with the rest of the combat force to depart by the end of 2014, along with their counterparts from NATO and other partner countries. Obama did not say how many troops he was willing to commit to a post-2014 mission in Afghanistan, but he is believed to be weighing options that range from about 3,000 to about 9,000.
At the Brussels meeting, German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere caused an initial stir by telling reporters that Panetta had said the U.S. would keep 8,000 to 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014. Panetta denied that, saying he was talking about a combined U.S. and NATO force of 8,000 to 12,000, and de Maiziere later said his own comments to reporters were "misleading."
Panetta said officials are planning to leave troops in all sectors of the country as well as in Kabul. Currently, Italy is leading the allied security presence in western Afghanistan, Germany in the north and the U.S. in the east and the south.
The Obama administration also is considering a plan to underwrite the cost of maintaining an Afghan security force of 352,000 for the next five years as part of an effort to maintain security and help convince Afghans that they will not be abandoned.
Last May, NATO agreed that the Afghan force would be reduced to about 230,000 after 2014. A force of that size would cost about $4.1 billion a year, compared to $6.5 billion this year for the bigger force of 352,000. The U.S. pays about $5.7 billion of that $6.5 billion bill.
Associated Press writers Don Melvin and Julie Pace contributed to this report. Baldor reported from Brussels.