By Jeremy Herb - 03/22/12 07:44 PM EDT
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Thursday that he expects to need "significant combat power" in Afghanistan in 2013, suggesting there could be a sizable pause in withdrawals after troop levels are reduced to 68,000 this summer.
Afghanistan commander Gen. John Allen told the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday that 68,000 troops was a good starting number for 2013 as he was pressed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) about reports the Obama administration is considering a quicker withdrawal.
“My opinion is that we will need significant combat power in 2013,” Allen said. “Sixty-eight thousand is a good going in number, but I owe the president some analysis on that.”
NATO plans to hand over control of security to Afghan forces at the end of 2014, but the Obama administration has not indicated how quickly it plans to withdraw the 68,000 troops that will remain after the summer.
President Obama has said the administration is not changing its plans for withdrawal as a result of the incidents. Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai say they want the Afghans to take the lead for combat operations in 2013, with the full transition occurring by the end of 2014.
McCain, who has been critical of the Obama administration’s drawdown timeline, said the planned surge withdrawal of 23,000 troops “significantly increased the risk of our mission,” and called for a pause after the summer to assess the impact of the drawdown.
“It would be much better to maintain the 68,000 forces through the next year's fighting season, probably longer,” said McCain, the committee’s ranking member. “At the strategic level our efforts continue to be undermined by the perception that the United States will abandon Afghanistan once again.”
Allen told House members on Tuesday that he planned to wait until after the 23,000 surge forces were withdrawn this summer before making decisions about further withdrawals.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who has said he wants to see a steady withdrawal after the surge forces leave, asked Allen about a Wall Street Journal report about reducing the size of the Afghan security forces from 352,000 to 230,000 after 2014, in part based on what the international community will provide financially.
Levin said that reducing the Afghan forces for financial reasons “may be penny wise, but it would be pound foolish.”
Allen said that the 352,000 number is a surge force, and that the 230,000 level was a target that officials believe is the right size considering Afghanistan’s potential enemies in 2017.
U.S. and Afghan officials are working on a strategic partnership agreement, which has been held up by two issues: detainees and night raids. An agreement was reached on the detainee issue earlier this month, and the two sides are still negotiating on night raids.
Allen said that moving to a warrant-based system for authorizing night raids would not impede the ability to conduct them, adding that a similar process was set up in Iraq.
“I assure you that we will get this right,” Allen told Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.). “We won't get it fast. And the outcome will be night operations that continue to contribute to this campaign with Afghans deeply in the process.”