By Barbara Starr
As Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel prepares to fly to Brussels on Monday for a meeting of NATO defense ministers, the question of how many U.S. troops might remain in Afghanistan after 2014 is still unanswered.
But indications are emerging that it may be a relatively small number of troops that stay behind.
Several military and Pentagon officials tell CNN that a central option now being considered calls for a total NATO force of between 8,000 to 12,000 troops, with 3,000 to 4,000 coming from NATO countries, and the United States making up the balance.
While the final numbers could change, one senior Defense Department official said it's not likely to change by much. If fewer than 8,000 were to stay, relatively few would be able to engage in actual missions.
There appears to be little appetite in NATO capitals, or in Congress, for a larger force, especially in light of coming U.S. defense budget cuts, the official said. The Obama administration is expected to begin focusing over the next 30 days on a decision about those troop levels.
The size of this potential force also is in line with earlier NATO planning guidance for up to 10,000 troops.
The official declined to be identified because no decisions have been made, but he has direct knowledge of the latest thinking.
Hagel and other defense ministers will be briefed on the latest situation in Afghanistan. Several NATO countries privately have expressed an unwillingness to maintain a major troop commitment to Afghanistan for a lengthy period of time, so Hagel will have to get a sense of what the real alliance contribution may be.
The U.S. mission after 2014 will be devoted to counterterrorism to fight al Qaeda and militant groups, as well as training Afghan forces.
On a separate recent visit to Kabul, Secretary of State John Kerry finalized much of the detail of a US-Afghan bilateral security agreement with President Hamid Karzai.
Karzai is still planning to submit it to his own Loya Jirga grand council for their approval on two key points. One is over American insistence it will have legal jurisdiction over any U.S. troops that get into legal trouble. The other is over Afghanistan wanting assurances the United States would help it fight an attack from the outside.
According to two U.S. officials, the feeling is Karzai may be maneuvering to get a U.S. promise to back Afghanistan if it is attacked by Pakistan. Both officials said that is a promise the United States will not make.
A security agreement would have to be finalized before the United States and NATO can make firm troop commitments to a post-2014 force.