The U.S. commander of international forces in Afghanistan said on Tuesday he will make a recommendation of how many American troops should remain in Afghanistan after he sees how well Afghan security handles the summer fighting season.
"We need to see how the Afghans do in their first summer in the lead, and make an assessment in November 2013,'' Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
He said other variables such as the state of the enemy and Afghanistan's political transition would also inform his decision.
Dunford stressed repeatedly that the United States could not make a troop commitment until it had signed a bilateral security agreement with the Afghan government. Washington and Kabul have been negotiating such a pact, which would address the relationship of the two countries for years to come.
Lawmakers have been pressing U.S. commanders to release recommendations for how many troops should remain in Afghanistan after 2014, when President Barack Obama has pledged to withdraw most U.S. forces.
The decision is a delicate one. Obama wants to put an end to the conflict launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but also to ensure enough troops stay behind to train and support Afghan forces and carry out counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda and its allies.
Senator John McCain said the refusal to announce a troop commitment made the U.S. mission in Afghanistan more difficult.
"One of the reasons we're having so much difficulty in some areas is because the Afghans don't know what our commitment is,'' he said, sharply.
"I can't tell you how disappointed I am in your testimony, general,'' the Arizona Republican said.
General James Mattis, who leads the U.S. military's Central Command, said last month that he has recommended keeping 13,600 American troops in Afghanistan after 2013.
Dunford told reporters after the hearing that he would not comment on that figure.