By Carlo Muñoz - 05/30/12 10:43 PM EDT
The White House is already set on pulling out 23,000 U.S. soldiers from Afghanistan by this summer, as part of a postwar deal inked between Washington and Kabul in May.
But how many of those troops and how fast they rotate out of Afghanistan is still an open question, except for one senior military commander overseeing U.S. and NATO operations on the ground.
Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, second-in-command of all American forces in Afghanistan, told NPR on Wednesday that the Pentagon should maintain that 68,000-man force through 2013.
"Personally, I would like to stay at 68,000 through the first part of . And then again we'll make an assessment ... and we'll decide what we need going forward," Scaparrotti told NPR.
Maintaining that troop number would mean the 23,000 U.S. soldiers scheduled to leave the country in the next few months would be the last American troops to come out of Afghanistan until next year.
Gen. John Allen, Scaparrotti's boss and top U.S. officer in Afghanistan, sounded a similar tone during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in March.
Allen told committee members the United States would need to maintain "significant combat power" in Afghanistan in the run-up to the 2014 withdrawal deadline.
However, the four-star general was a bit more flexible in his assessment of future troop drawdowns after the first batch of American soldiers leave this year.
“Sixty-eight thousand is a good going in number, but I owe the president some analysis on that," Allen said at the time.
In March, the White House considered a plan backed by National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon to pull at least 10,000 more troops from Afghanistan by the end of December, and then 10,000 to 20,000 more by June 2013.
That drawdown schedule would have coincided with the Pentagon's plan to fully transition all security operations to Afghan forces by 2013.
Members of the Afghan National Security Forces have already taken control of detainee operations and night raid missions in country.
But since March, the administration has remained mum on the Donilon option as White House and Pentagon continue to fine tune its strategy on how it will leave Afghanistan in the next two years.