The top commander in Afghanistan said Thursday he prefers a robust U.S. combat force of 68,000 in 2013, signaling a potential halt in the drawdown and complicating any effort by President Barack Obama to accelerate the timetable after more than a decade of war.
"My opinion is that we will need significant combat power in 2013," Marine Gen. John Allen told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Pressed by the panel's top Republican, Sen. John McCain, on whether a force of 68,000 would be sufficient, Allen said, "Sixty-eight thousand is a good going-in number, but I owe the president some analysis on that."
In his second public hearing on Capitol Hill this week, the commanding general of the war in Afghanistan argued that the war can still be won, and he warned that a withdrawal of coalition forces would create a vacuum in the region.
"Should the U.S. leave Afghanistan, should ISAF, NATO leave Afghanistan, that would create in my mind, for all intents and purposes, a geopolitical vacuum," Allen said, as the Afghan National Security Forces prepare to take over responsibility.
Allen's comments represent a marker for the military. Obama faces increasing political and public pressure to accelerate the timetable after more than 10 years of fighting and recent incidents that dealt a major setback to the fragile U.S.-Afghanistan relationship. Afghan outrage over the burnings of Qurans and a shooting spree that left 17 Afghan civilians dead have been blamed on Americans.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, tried to get Allen to admit how much money the U.S. will have to pay to fund the Afghan National Security Forces over the next decade, but Allen said he could not say. He did acknowledge that the current annual cost to fund the ANSF's 352,000 troops is between $4 billion and $5 billion, but the entire annual revenue for Afghanistan is only $2 billion, so the international community will be helping the Afghans for some time.
Allen said he remains optimistic that the war can still be won.
"If I didn't think it was do-able I would tell you, and I would tell you very quickly because I wouldn't want to spend another life in this fight if it wasn't do-able," Allen said.
Asked later by Sen. Lindsey Graham whether the current strategy in Afghanistan represents "the last best chance for success in Afghanistan," Allen said quietly, "I concur with that, senator."
NBC News' Courtney Kube and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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