(Reuters) - The United States will require "significant firepower" in Afghanistan in 2013-14, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces there said, but decisions about further U.S. troop reductions will only be made after this fall at the earliest.
"We're going to need combat power. I don't think anyone questions that," Marine General John Allen said on Wednesday. "I owe the president some real analysis on this."
Allen spoke to reporters two days after NATO leaders discussed Afghanistan's future in Chicago, embracing a plan to hand control to local security forces by the middle of 2013 and, Western leaders hope, to end the long, costly Afghan conflict.
By the end of this summer, Allen is due to withdraw all the 33,000 "surge" troops that President Barack Obama sent to battle the Taliban in 2009-2010.
Once those troops are gone, Allen will assess the campaign and make recommendations to the White House about how best to withdraw most of the remaining U.S. force of about 68,000.
"I intend to take a very hard look at the state of the insurgency," Allen said, and how Afghanistan's growing military is faring. Those factors will inform his recommendations to Obama about how many troops can be pulled in 2013 and 2014 without allowing the Taliban to stage a comeback.
"So there's not a number right now," he said.
While most foreign troops will be gone from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, a modest number of Western soldiers are expected to stay beyond then, focused on targeted strikes against militants and advising Afghan forces.
Yet critics, especially among Republicans as the race to November presidential elections intensifies, are already warning the Obama administration against allowing anything other than conditions on the ground and security concerns to dictate the pace of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
While Obama's surge drove Taliban militants out of some areas of their southern stronghold, the Afghan insurgency remains a potent enemy.
Allen appeared confident that troop reduction would not allow the Taliban to return as a more powerful fighting force.
"It is not our intention to cede the ground, ultimately, to the Taliban. And, in fact, it's not even clear that the Taliban have the capacity to flow in" to areas that foreign troops depart, Allen said.
(Reporting by Missy Ryan and Phil Stewart; Editing by Anthony Boadle)