By Dylan Welch and Jessica Donati
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's security will remain dependent on international troops for many years after most foreign combat forces leave by the end of 2014, the U.S. commander of the NATO-led force in the South Asian country said.
With the formal security handover to Afghans approaching, intense debate is under way about how many troops the United States and its mainly NATO allies should leave to conduct training, support and counter-terrorism operations.
The White House favors about 7,000 U.S. troops, but some in the U.S. military would prefer two or three times as many.
However many are left behind, they will play a vital role in supporting the Afghan National Security Forces. ANSF numbers have been projected at 352,000 by the time they take over, although they have not reached that level yet, according to some official U.S. estimates.
U.S. General Joseph Dunford, the last commander of the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, would not be drawn on how many he thought should remain, referring instead to "sustainability."
In an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, he argued for a significant presence after the U.S.-dominated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is disbanded next year.
"The post-2014 presence is a lot more complicated than the numbers and the numbers have become a distraction, to be honest with you," Dunford said in his Kabul headquarters.
"It's about a lot more than numbers. It's about what capability is required to sustain the Afghan security forces after 2014," he said.
Twelve years into the war, launched in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the United States, the Taliban and other insurgents are still able to make telling blows against foreign troops and Afghan government institutions.
That makes the decision about the post-2014 force, to be made in Washington later this year, even more important. Others, such as Germany and Italy, will make smaller contributions.
ISAF currently numbers about 87,000 troops, three-quarters of them American. Dunford said the intense debate about the size of the residual force was not helpful.
U.S. Army Major General James McConville, who heads the ISAF's eastern regional command, told a teleconference from Bagram that Afghan security forces in his region were making "tremendous progress" and that U.S. and Afghan forces were now fighting together "with an Afghan fist."
SPIKE IN VIOLENCE
But he said the U.S. military expected a spike in violence in the last 60 days of the 2013 fighting season, and it was critical for Afghan security forces to maintain confidence.
McConville said he expected that the Afghan forces would need limited foreign assistance for a "couple of years" after 2014. He said the Afghan forces in the eastern region had achieved some significant successes, including carrying out a major air assault in recent days, but needed work on combined operations and strengthening Afghanistan's air force.
He said the number of U.S. forces in the eastern region had declined from 18,000 to 12,000, and the number of bases had been reduced from 58 to 17, with an additional 11 bases that had been largely turned over to Afghan forces.
One of the sticking points about the size of the residual force has been the suspension of talks between Afghanistan and the United States over a bilateral security pact to replace the ISAF mission.
The collapse of a similar pact between the United States and Baghdad in 2011 led Washington to pull all its troops out of Iraq, which has since fallen back into sectarian violence.
The pact talks were suspended in June amid Afghan anger over the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar, which President Hamid Karzai's government blamed partly on U.S. involvement.
Dunford said he had talked "at every level from district and province to members of parliament ... to President Karzai" and was adamant the pact would be signed.
He also said it was too early to judge whether the mission in Afghanistan had been successful, or how America's longest war would be remembered.
"Our objective is a stable, secure and unified Afghanistan. And we're still working towards that end," Dunford said.
"And if we achieve the objective ... I think it will be remembered as being successful."
(Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa in Washington; Editing by Paul Tait and Vicki Allen)