The top commander in Afghanistan said Thursday he prefers a significant American force of 68,000 to combat insurgents in 2013, signaling a potential halt in the drawdown and complicating any effort by President Barack Obama to speed up troop withdrawals after more than a decade of war.
Marine Gen. John Allen insisted that he will hold off on a recommendation on the pace of further reductions until after the 23,000-member surge forces leaves Afghanistan by the end of September. But in his most explicit comments in two days of congressional testimony, Allen indicated that he envisions no other withdrawals beyond that cut this year and expressed his preference for next year.
"My opinion is that we will need significant combat power in 2013," Allen told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"Like 68,000?" asked Sen. John McCain, the panel's top Republican.
"Sixty-eight thousand is a good going-in number, sir, but I owe the president some analysis on that," Allen replied.
Obama faces increasing political and public pressure to accelerate the timetable for withdrawing forces more than a decade after President George W. Bush dispatched the military to respond to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Recent incidents _ blamed on Americans _ have undermined the fragile U.S.-Afghanistan relationship. The burnings of Qurans and a shooting spree that left 17 Afghan civilians dead, including women and children, have stoked the anti-American rage.
Obama has said he wants to "responsibly wind down this war," as the United States and other members of the coalition shift the responsibility for security to Afghan forces. Within the White House, officials have discussed the size of the force next year with potential withdrawal numbers and scenarios, including the possibility of bringing home additional forces in the final months of 2012.
But Allen made it clear that the last three months of the year will be his time to assess the force and the threat _ with an announcement likely 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 maintain a steady pace for withdrawal in 2013.
"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.
White House spokesman Jay Carney, questioned about Allen's comment, said Obama remains committed to steadily drawing down U.S. combat troops as security responsibilities shift to Afghan forces. A specific timetable and the size of the withdrawal will be decided after the surge forces leave.
"What General Allen was referring to is that 68,000 troops that remain after withdrawal of the surge forces is a good number going in" to the post-surge withdrawal period, Carney said aboard Air Force One as the president traveled to Ohio.
Capt., John Kirby, a spokesman for Allen, said in a statement that "there is absolutely no daylight between General Allen and the commander in chief about the need to assess the state of the insurgency in the fall before making any decisions about future force levels. General Allen has not committed himself to any specific number of troops at any particular point in 2013."
Allen faced repeated questions from lawmakers about a potential reduction of Afghan security forces, from the stated goal of 352,000 to 240,000 by 2017. Several senators challenged that step and whether it was driven by budget concerns.
"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 the military was weighing what the number should be based on the threat. The cost of an Afghan force of 352,000 would be $4-5 billion.
"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.
Allen stressed the importance of the night raids and offered statistics to boost their importance in the fight. He said of 2,200 night operations last year, no shots were fired on 90 percent of them. He said there have been casualties but the numbers are low _ 27 people killed or wounded in 9,200 night raids.
One element in the ongoing conflict is 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.
AP White House Correspondent Ben Feller contributed to this report.