WASHINGTON (AP) - The top commander in Afghanistan said Thursday he prefers a robust U.S. combat force of 68,000 in 2013, signaling a potential halt in the drawdown and complicating any effort by President Barack Obama to accelerate the timetable after more than a decade of war.
"My opinion is that we will need significant combat power in 2013," Marine Gen. John Allen told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Pressed by the panel's top Republican, John McCain, on whether a force of 68,000 would be sufficient, Allen said, "Sixty-eight thousand is a good going-in number, but I owe the president some analysis on that."
Allen's comments were his most explicit in two days of testimony on Capitol Hill and represent a marker for the military. Obama faces increasing political and public pressure to accelerate the timetable after more than 10 years of fighting and recent incidents that dealt a major setback to the fragile U.S.-Afghanistan relationship. Afghan outrage over the burnings of Qurans and a shooting spree that left 17 Afghan civilians dead have been blamed on Americans.
Allen said the United States is on track to reduce the 23,000-member surge force by the end of September, but he said he won't make his recommendation on the pace of further reductions until the last three months of the year - an announcement likely to come after Election Day.
He defended that approach under questioning from Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., who is pressing for the United States to stick to its timetable for Afghan forces to assume the responsibility for security.
"I think it's exactly the best way ultimately to identify the state of the insurgency, the state of the full ISAF force, to include the U.S. force, but also to evaluate the operational requirements for '13 in order to make a comprehensive recommendation," Allen told the committee.
The current plan calls for the U.S. to withdraw its surge force of 23,000 American troops by the end of September, with a complete drawdown by December 2014. Currently the United States has 90,000 troops in the region.
Allen's appearance was his second on Capitol Hill this week. He also faced repeated questions about a potential reduction of Afghan security forces from the goal of 352,000 to 240,000 by 2017, a notion that unnerved several lawmakers.
"Given the fact that transition to a strong Afghan security force is the key to success of this mission, why would it be -- why does it make sense to talk about reducing the size of the Afghan army by a third?" Levin asked.
Allen said that was a target number for 2017 and they were weighing what number would be optimal.
"There are a number of different options, and we're continuing to evaluate what those options might be, all the way from the current force, the 352,000 force, which will continue to exist for several years once we have fielded it, down to a force that was smaller than 230,000, which probably doesn't have the right capabilities, the right combination of capabilities," Allen said.
U.S. and Afghan officials are working separately to resolve a dispute over military raids on Afghan homes that had become a bitter sticking point. Under a draft agreement expected to be signed this week, Afghan military units would take a larger role in planning and carrying out the raids, with the United States moving into a supporting role. An Afghan judge or panel would have a say, if not full veto, over operations the Afghans complain cause too many civilian deaths.
U.S. officials described elements of the security agreement on condition of anonymity because it is not final. Negotiators were expected to finish it Thursday in Kabul. Control over what Afghan call "night raids" was the last issue holding up a larger agreement governing U.S.-Afghan relations after most foreign forces leave in 2014.
That agreement is expected to be a centerpiece of a NATO summit the United States will host in May. Obama and Karzai could sign the document then, or perhaps earlier if they arrange a separate meeting.
One element in the ongoing conflict are on-again, off-again negotiations between the United States and the Taliban. The Taliban is seeking the release of five prisoners held at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Associated Press has reported that the U.S. agreed in principle to transfer the prisoners to custody in Qatar, and U.S. officials have publicly acknowledged the idea is in play. .
Jim Miller, the acting undersecretary of defense for policy, told the committee that no decision has been made on the transfer of the prisoners, a step that would require notification of Congress.