(Reuters) - The United States will require "significant combat power" next year in Afghanistan, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces said on Thursday, as debate heats up in Washington about the pace of the American exit from the over decade-long war.
"My opinion is that we will need significant combat power in 2013," U.S. General John Allen told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"Like 68,000?" Senator John McCain, the committee's senior Republican, asked Allen.
"Sixty-eight thousand is a good going-in number sir, but I owe the president some analysis on that," Allen replied.
The United States now plans to remove all of President Barack Obama's 33,000 "surge" troops from Afghanistan by October 2012, leaving a force of around 68,000 to fight the Taliban and train Afghan forces.
Under a plan endorsed by NATO nations and the Afghan government, local forces will gradually take over and most foreign combat troops will be gone by the end of 2014.
On Tuesday, Allen said he would make recommendations by late this year on how quickly U.S. troops should be pulled from Afghanistan in 2013 and 2014. Recommendations would probably come after presidential elections in November that Obama hopes will deliver him a second term.
Some leading Republicans are pressing the White House to keep a larger number of troops in Afghanistan, where a series of public setbacks over the past month has raised questions about the U.S. course there, while many of Obama's fellow Democrats prefer an accelerated exit from a long, costly war.
Allen also said that the expected size of Afghan security forces might stand at around 230,000 in the long run, around 100,000 smaller than the current force.
NATO nations have been planning to build the Afghan police and army to a force of around 352,000 this fall, but then later reduce that as - they hope - the security threat fades and as financial support shrinks from the West.
The Obama administration hopes to announce Western funding commitments for Afghan forces - the Afghan government will not be able to finance them for the foreseeable future - at a NATO summit in May.
Ambassador Marc Grossman, Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, is currently on a tour of Western capitals to drum up support for that goal.
(Reporting By Susan Cornwell and Missy Ryan; Editing by Vicki Allen)