By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Republican leader of the U.S. Senate on Tuesday backed President Barack Obama's plans to slow the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, but said he favored keeping 10,000 there rather than reducing the force by half under a plan announced last week.
"The bare minimum number is ... closer to 10,000, that's what you really need," Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, told reporters. "To continue to flirt with the idea that it's not going to continue only encourages the other side and emboldens the other side."
McConnell and four other Republican members of the Senate and the House of Representatives met with a small group of reporters to discuss their recent overseas trip that included stops in Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Every place we visited, American prestige is certainly at a low ebb, and there's a great deal of concern about the Russians raising their profile," said McConnell, a frequent critic of the policies of Obama, a Democrat.
Revising his position on Afghanistan, Obama announced last week that he would prolong the 14-year-old U.S. military engagement there, effectively handing off the task of pulling out troops to his successor.
Obama had previously aimed to withdraw all but a small U.S.-embassy-based force in the capital, Kabul, before he leaves office in January 2017. Under the new plan, troops would be drawn down to 5,500 starting sometime in 2017.
Republicans hold a majority of seats in both the Senate and the House, and many strongly opposed Obama's decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq. They largely blame that decision for the rise of Islamic State militants who now control swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria and are appearing in Afghanistan.
"We shouldn't focus on the troop levels, we should focus on what military conditions dictate and listen to the advice of generals on the ground," Republican Senator Tom Cotton said.
Congress must authorize and fund Department of Defense programs. Republicans and Democrats are currently battling over this year's $612 billion defense authorization bill, which Obama has threatened to veto.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Leslie Adler)