The top American commander in Afghanistan endorsed the slowing of the U.S. troop drawdown in 2013 Thursday, a key marker in a coming campaign-trail debate about the future of the conflict.
The Obama administration is in the midst of withdrawing 30,000 American troops by this fall. That will leave about 68,000 U.S. forces there into 2013 until 2014, when all U.S. forces will be removed.
White House and Pentagon officials will hold high-stakes talks in coming months about whether to remove even more troops next year, all while the president is running for re-election.
Marine Corps Gen. John Allen signalled for the first time he would resist efforts to shrink the American force below 68,000 troops.
Allen told the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Ariz. Sen. John McCain, that the U.S. "will need significant combat power" in Afghanistan in 2013.
The commander called 68,000 troops "a good going-in number."
But Allen clearly realizes months of internal deliberations are ahead. "I owe the president some analysis on that," Allen said.
Later this year, Allen is slated to submit a recommendation to Pentagon and White House officials on how many troops he will need next year.
The 68,000 figure appears to be Allen's opening offer in a months-long negotiation over force levels.
The Pentagon moved quickly to dispel any notions that Allen was calling for any specific force size.
Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby tweeted: "Some bad assumptions [from] Gen. Allen's comments. He did NOT argue for 68K troops through 2013. Said he owes President analysis."
Notably, however, Allen never mentioned a 2013 force smaller than 68,000 American troops. The Pentagon's 2013 spending request for the war assumes that many American forces will remain in place next year.
Acting Pentagon policy chief James Miller said Thursday that Obama will make a decision on future force levels "at an appropriate time." It appears that time will come "this fall," Miller added.
Should the commander recommend a force of that size, he will find allies in the GOP on Capitol Hill.
"To sustain this fragile progress, it is critical that President Obama resist the short-sighted calls for additional troop reductions, which are a guarantee of failure," McCain said Thursday. "Our forces are currently slated to draw down to 68,000 by September – a faster pace than our military commanders recommended, which has significantly increased the risks for our mission.
Once the second part of the 30,000 troops are out this fall, McCain said U.S. withdrawal should be paused.
"It would be much better to maintain the 68,000 forces through next year's fighting season, possibly longer," McCain said.
On Tuesday, a group of hawkish House Republicans called the recent controversies of Koran burnings and an alleged mass killing of civilians by an American soldier "isolated" incidents. Two days later, however, Allen warned such incidents threaten to poison the "core" of the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship.
Congressional Republicans appear more committed to stay in Afghanistan until the proposed withdrawal datesthan most Democrats on Capitol Hill, who have said in recent weeks that U.S. forces have done all they can do to drive out Taliban and al Qaeda fighters and build a functional government.
Democrats are increasingly calling for a faster end to the conflict by talking about its costs.
Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson of said Thursday the American people need a clearer picture of how much more Washington intends to spend just to build Afghan security and police forces.
The Senate panel's chairman, Michigan Sen. Carl Levin said "it is cost-effective to sustain a larger Afghan security force when compared to the costs, in billions of dollars and the lives of our military men and women, of having U.S. and coalition forces maintain security in Afghanistan."
"It may be penny-wise but would be pound-foolish to put at risk the hard-fought gains we, our coalition partners, and the Afghans have achieved rather than support an Afghan security force that is right-sized to provide security to the Afghan people and prevent a Taliban return to power," Levin said.
Miller said it will cost more than $4 billion annually to maintain a 352,000-troop Afghan security force. NATO has pegged the figure at least $8 billion a year.
U.S. military and Afghan officials are in talks about how large the indigenous security and police force should be beyond 2014. Allen said it will remain at 352,000 "for at least a year" after most American troops are gone on Dec. 31, 2014.
Though U.S. officials and lawmakers have said some U.S. special forces and support troops will remain for counterterrorism missions, Allen made clear in more than six hours of testimony this week that Afghan troops are increasingly in the lead.
That is why officials believe Afghanistan will need 352,000 troops to secure operational gains made since 2009. But beyond 2015, he said, U.S. and Afghan officials believe the indigenous force will shrink to around 230,000.