Panetta, NATO Partner Differ on Troop Numbers

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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.

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.

This is Panetta's fifth visit to Brussels for a NATO meeting — a trip he never intended to take. Expectations were that defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, would be confirmed by the Senate last week and he would travel to the meeting.

Hagel's nomination stalled, however, as it got caught up in senators' complaints about the attack in Benghazi, which left four Americans dead, including the ambassador. There are indications now that Hagel has support from enough senators to be confirmed next week.

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Associated Press writers Don Melvin and Julie Pace contributed to this report.

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Lolita C. Baldor can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lbaldor

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