AP National Security Writer
STUTTGART, Germany (AP) -- In order to assess the strength of Afghan government forces, the U.S. should wait until summer or later before deciding how many troops to keep in Afghanistan after the combat mission ends in December 2014, the U.S. military's top officer said Friday.
"I'm not in any particular hurry" to come up with a number for what the U.S. military calls an "enduring presence" in Afghanistan, Gen. Martin Dempsey said in an interview.
Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered no opinion on how many U.S. troops he thinks will be needed for the post-2014 mission of training and advising Afghans and continuing counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida and other extremists.
Other officials have said President Barack Obama may approve a residual force of up to 10,000 troops.
Dempsey said he thinks it would be wise to get a better feel for Afghan capabilities under the more difficult circumstances they will face without American troops playing the lead combat role.
"I'd like to see how they do in a fighting season," he said, referring to the period between late spring and early autumn when the Taliban typically put up the stiffest fight.
The U.S.-led coalition and the Afghan government have followed a phased approach to putting Afghan forces in the lead combat role in order to avoid their collapse and to keep the Taliban on their heels.
The final phase is supposed to start on an unannounced date this spring; that step had originally been scheduled for summer but it was advanced to springtime by mutual agreement between Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai when Karzai visited Washington in January.
Keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014 will be subject to Afghan government approval. The terms of such an arrangement would be part of broader negotiations now under way between Kabul and Washington on a bilateral security agreement.
"My military judgment is that the decision about the enduring presence ... will be necessary to help us and our NATO allies plan, though actually pinning it down is not a matter of urgency," Dempsey said. "I think a range will be prudent to have by the summer."
There are now about 66,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Dempsey was in Stuttgart on Friday to preside at a ceremony installing Gen. David Rodriguez as the commander of U.S. Africa Command.
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