By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama publicly scoffed at the idea of keeping 10,000 troops in Iraq. So could he really be persuaded to keep that many in Afghanistan after the war formally ends in 2014?
The 10,000 figure is well within a preliminary range put forward by the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, and which is informing deliberations by the Obama administration, one U.S. official said.
But the optics could be tricky for Obama, who must balance his promise to end the war in Afghanistan in 2014 with the need to keep enough forces there to prevent the destabilization of the country and a return of al Qaeda. He also must get Kabul to agree.
"As long as (U.S. troops) are in a war zone and putting their lives on the line, it's hard for any president to say the war is over," said Juan Zarate, a former counterterrorism adviser to President George W. Bush and a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Allen's preliminary suggestions for a post-2014 training and counterterrorism mission ranged from around 6,000 to 15,000 troops, said the U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The figures were still in flux, the official said. The estimate was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
By comparison, there are around 66,000 American forces in Afghanistan now.
The timing of Obama's decision is unclear but Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said earlier this month the he hoped for a figure to be finalized within weeks, raising the possibility of a December announcement. The timing of any announcement is also tied to discussions in Kabul, where a long-term U.S.-Afghan security agreement is being hammered out.
The Pentagon sought to tamp down speculation about the deliberations on both the post-2014 force and the pace of the drawdown over the next two years.
Panetta, who will speak on Tuesday with Allen in Kabul via video-conference, has not yet forwarded a recommendation to Obama, a spokesman said.
"It's entirely premature to speculate on troop numbers in Afghanistan between now and the end of 2014 or beyond," Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters.
But with the election over, the future scope of the American military presence in Afghanistan is the subject of intense debate in Washington - with some analysts saying far more than even 16,000 troops are required.
Kimberly and Fredrick Kagan, two experts on the Afghan war, recommended keeping American forces in Afghanistan at the current level through the end of 2014. They envisioned a residual force of more than 30,000 troops.
"At that level U.S. forces in Afghanistan could do nothing beyond the minimum necessary to allow us to continue counterterrorism operations in South Asia," they wrote in an opinion piece published in the Washington Post.
Obama could benefit from some contributions of trainers or counterterrorism troops by NATO allies, helping him off-set the total number of U.S. forces present in Afghanistan past 2014.
But it would be difficult to imagine Obama agreeing with the Kagans. In his final debate with Republican challenger Mitt Romney before the U.S. presidential election, Obama blasted the idea of keeping a sizeable troop presence in Iraq - a war he opposed.
"What I would not have had done was left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down," Obama said at the time.
The Kagans' recommendation that the United States keep all of its forces in the country until the end of the NATO mission in 2014 also seems unlikely to gain much sway at the White House.
Asked about the pace of the drawdown in 2013 and 2014, Little echoed remarks from Obama last year suggesting troop levels would decline.
"As the president made clear in June 2011, our forces will continue to come home at a steady pace as we transition to an Afghan lead for security," Little said.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Jackie Frank)