German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere told reporters Friday that Panetta informed him of the numbers.
U.S. officials have yet to say publicly how many American troops will remain in Afghanistan after 2014.
Panetta had said earlier Friday that U.S. officials were planning to leave troops in all sectors of the country
-- north, south, east and west -- as well as in Kabul. Pentagon officials have said the military has mapped out plans to carry on its mission of training and advising the Afghan forces and also leave a small counterterrorism force to battle insurgents. When asked, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters Friday that no decision has been made on the size of the post-2014 international force.
Speaking to reporters at the close of the meeting of NATO defense ministers here, Panetta noted that President Barack Obama is strongly considering a plan to maintain 352,000 Afghan troops for the next five years. That would be part of an effort to promote security and stability and help persuade Afghanistan that America and its allies will not abandon it once combat troops leave in 2014, senior alliance officials said Thursday.
NATO officials are also widely considering that option.
Such a change, if NATO endorses it, could increase the costs to the U.S. and allies by more than $2 billion a year, at a time when most are struggling with budget cuts and fiscal woes. Last May, NATO agreed to underwrite an Afghan force of about 230,000, at a cost of about $4.1 billion a year after 2014. It costs about $6.5 billion this year to fund the current Afghan force of 352,000, and the U.S. is providing about $5.7 billion of that.
Maintaining the larger troop strength could bolster the confidence of the Afghan forces and make it clear that NATO is committed to an enduring relationship with Afghanistan, a senior NATO official said.
In private meetings with other defense ministers, Panetta warned allies that Washington's fiscal impasse will have repercussions abroad, as impending budget cuts force the military to scale back its training and presence overseas.
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Many of his meetings, however, centered on the plans to wind down the war in Afghanistan, including the withdrawal of 34,000 U.S. troops over the next year and the transfer of security responsibilities to the Afghan forces.
According to an Obama administration official, the Pentagon plans to reduce the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to about 60,500 by the end of May; then to 52,500 by November, keeping a relatively stable number of troops there during the peak fighting season. The sharpest cuts in U.S. troop strength will come over the winter months as the remaining 20,500 leave after the main fighting season. There currently are about 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Panetta acknowledged those ranges of numbers on Friday, but also added that the U.S. would maintain the 34,000 through the Afghan elections, then withdraw the final combat troops toward the end of 2014.
The administration officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the numbers publicly.
The trip was Panetta's fifth to Brussels for a NATO meeting -- a journey he never intended to take. Expectations were that Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, would be confirmed by the Senate last week to succeed Panetta and that Hagel would be traveling to the meeting.
Hagel's nomination stalled, however, as it got caught up in senators' complaints about the attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, which killed for Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Press; By LOLITA C. BALDOR]
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