KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany -- "First of all," said the Lord Mayor of Kaiserslautern, "it looks like the Americans themselves don't know what they want."
Mayor Gerhard Piontek was talking about the difficulty of getting information and planning for radical reductions in the huge U.S. military population in his city and surrounding areas in the Rhineland-Palatinate.
He presides over a city of 155,000, of whom more than one-third are Americans -- mainly U.S. Army and Air Force personnel and their families clustered in what is said to be the largest American population outside the United States.
But Mr. Piontek could have been covering far wider ground with his comments about the post-Cold War uncertainties facing city planners. For debate is raging all over Europe and back home about the number of troops to keep on the continent and in Britain and how swiftly to reduce to whatever level is set.
The U.S. forces are shutting down installations by the hundreds in Europe and going home by the tens of thousands. The next big date is today, when the Army will close the Stuttgart headquarters of its famed 7th Corps, the unit that in the Persian Gulf war ran the largest armored force ever.
But the Americans still have not decided what residual strength they want to retain on the continent, causing the same sort of nervousness that sweeps through U.S. communities when base closings are in the offing.
They paraded their lack of consensus at an international security conference in Munich last month. Sen. William S. Cohen, R-Maine, said the troop level may fall to 75,000, instead of the 150,000 that military strategists want and the Bush administration advocates.
Vice President Dan Quayle backed the larger figure but, like several European diplomats, said he hoped "we don't get bogged down in numbers." (There were 315,000 U.S. troops in Europe when cutting started in 1990.)
Politicians may confidently be expected to get bogged in numbers, of course, as they argue about the purpose, necessity and size of continued U.S. participation in North Atlantic Treaty Organization military forces.
On the level of mayors, such as Kaiserslautern's Gerhard Piontek, there are different, immediate and practical problems. A tremendous transition is in progress with great economic and social impact.
Gen. Crosbie E. Saint, commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, says shutting installations and discharging many German civilian employees is having "all the drama and trauma you can imagine."
"I'm not an elected congressman," he said in an interview in Munich, "but I have the same kind of problems -- not only from the elected officials but from the local citizens, because we're in their society. We've been here 40 years; that's a good long time."
German towns were quite possessive of the U.S. units sent off to the Gulf war, he said. When they returned (often en route to new homes in the States), they were welcomed back by the towns.
Hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers and airmen and their families have known Kaiserslautern as K-town, a sort of "Little America" adjacent to the Air Force's European headquarters and largest European base at Ramstein and home of a huge Army logistics operation.
Nowhere will U.S. withdrawal likely have greater economic consequences and produce greater stresses than here, where the unemployment rate already is 8 percent, higher than the national average.
Mr. Piontek said in an interview that 20 percent of the jobs in the region were directly or indirectly influenced by the U.S. presence. Shopping malls, auto dealerships, fast-food restaurants abound, with all the familiar names and all sorts of other U.S.-oriented enterprises.
The second-largest operation hereabout is a General Motors Opel assembly line that employs 6,000, 4,000 fewer than the U.S. military still employs -- after cutbacks -- directly in Kaiserslautern and at Ramstein.
Ramstein Air Base, which has Army and NATO units as well as a host of Air Force outfits, estimated that it put $445 million into the local economy in 1991 from salaries spent off-base, construction contracts and purchases. That was down $30 million from 1990. The Washington Post published an estimate last July that total military spending in the region's local economy was $1.5 billion a year.
Mayor Piontek said that his "big problem" was how to compensate for the 20 percent of employment now dependent on the U.S. presence. He thinks Ramstein may be one of the last sites the United States will abandon, but its size is going down as the Air Force shrinks its jet fighter strength in Europe.
The mayor and his planners, like those in other parts of the Palatinate, are being hit by a double whammy. They have been urgently trying to coax U.S. civilian firms to invest here, taking advantage of the region's long experience with American ways, and thus to replace the coming loss of military income. But:
* The very presence of the large military operation turns out to be a disincentive, at least for now. Use of 57 percent of Kaiserslautern's land area is restricted because of the military presence, the mayor says, and 7 percent is off-limits because it is used for training exercises. Eventually, he hopes, all this will be available for industry and recreation.
* Just when he was beginning to get favorable responses -- 500 inquiries -- from advertising in the United States, the progress of German unification sent his hopes to the back burner. The business interest switched abruptly to the east.