McKeon Backs Keeping 13,600 Troops After Trip to Afghanistan

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon said the U.S. should keep 13,600 troops in Afghanistan after 2014, more than the Obama administration has been considering.

“That has the least danger of failure and puts our troops in the least jeopardy,” McKeon told reporters in his office at the Capitol today after returning from a weekend trip to the war-torn country.

McKeon, a California Republican, called on President Barack Obama to say soon how many troops should remain after most U.S. forces are withdrawn by the end of 2014. McKeon said that’s crucial to getting a “status of forces agreement” with Afghanistan that would protect remaining military personnel from local prosecution.

“He could change it later if he wanted to, but it would be helpful in getting the agreement,” McKeon said.

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta discussed with his European counterparts in Brussels last month a proposal to keep a combined total of 8,000 to 12,000 U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan after 2014. The higher number urged today by McKeon is being pushed by number of military commanders and former Pentagon officials, led by Marine Corps General James Mattis, who is retiring this month as head of the U.S. Central Command.

McKeon was in Afghanistan at the same time as Chuck Hagel, who was making his first visit to Afghanistan as U.S. defense secretary. McKeon, whose trip wasn’t previously announced, said he and Hagel met briefly there.

Karzai’s Comments

Hagel’s visit was overshadowed by two suicide bombings in the capital of Kabul and an accusation by Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the U.S. is colluding with the Taliban. Karzai said the U.S. is holding peace talks with the radical Islamists and the bombs were in the “service of America.”

McKeon said that while Karzai’s comments were unfortunate, U.S. military leaders can calm the situation through their strong relationships with Afghan officials.

“Obviously, it wasn’t good, an outrageous statement,” McKeon said of Karzai’s comments. Other members of Congress said this week that Karzai risks undercutting support from lawmakers for a continued U.S. troop presence.

McKeon said that Joseph Dunford, head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s International Security Assistance Force, said in a meeting that he was “optimistic” the U.S. can reach a security agreement with the Afghan government, “but he’s not wearing rose-colored glasses.”

The administration pulled out the remaining U.S. troops from Iraq in December 2011 after its government rejected a status of forces agreement providing immunity for troops.

Generals’ Recommendation

On March 5, General Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that his “recommendation is for 13,600 U.S. forces” in Afghanistan after 2014, with additional NATO troops bringing the total to more than 20,000.

McKeon said Dunford told him during his visit that he backs the recommendation by Mattis.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on March 7 that it “sounds about right” to keep “somewhere in the range of 12-13,000 Americans and half again that many from NATO.” Gates spoke in an interview with Bloomberg Television’s Betty Liu at the Everest Capital Emerging Markets Forum in Miami.

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