By Adam Levine and Chris Lawrence
The top commander for American and NATO forces in Afghanistan said Thursday he would like to maintain the post-surge U.S. troop level of 68,000 into 2013.
It was the most overt admission by Gen. John Allen of his view of the force level that he has maintained will be decided after what he described earlier this week as a "strategic conversation" with the White House. Though Allen said that was his opinion, he said he has not made an official recommendation and did not plan on doing so until later this year.
His statement will make it difficult for the Obama administration to try to withdraw more troops this year without looking like it is being done in defiance of commander's view of what is strategically needed.
Allen told the Senate Armed Service Committee on Thursday that he has yet to decide how troop levels would be adjusted after the expected reduction of 23,000 troops by the fall of 2012. He did not envision making a decision until after the surge troops are withdrawn, Allen said.
In fact, the commander said he had not yet finalized plans for how those 23,000 troops, part of the more than 30,000 added in the 2010 buildup, will be pulled out over the next six months.
But Allen was pressed by Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, who has been critical of calls to hasten the reduction of troop levels even further and faster after the violence that erupted over the burning of Qurans by American troops and the shootings of Afghan villagers earlier this month.
"My opinion is that we will need significant combat power in 2013," Allen told the committee.
"Like 68,000?" asked McCain.
"Sixty-eight thousand is a good going in number, sir. But I owe the president some analysis on that," Allen replied.
Allen said his decision on how to withdraw more troops after the surge troops leave will be based on a combination of how the fighting is going, the level and capability of the growing Afghan military and whether the remaining 68,000 American troops and 40,000 troops from other countries will be sufficient to deal with the "operational environment."
A Pentagon spokesman insisted that Allen was not suggesting what troop levels should be beyond 2012.
"There is absolutely no daylight between Gen. Allen and the Commander-in-Chief about the need to assess the state of the insurgency in the fall before making any decisions about future force levels," said Pentagon Spokesman Captain John Kirby in statement to CNN. "Gen. Allen has not committed himself to any specific number of troops at any particular point in 2013. He will offer his recommendations later this year only after he has had the time to do the proper analysis."