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Levin: Obama considering upping the goal for Afghan troops

From Charley Keyes, CNN Senior National Security Producer
  • 3 Senate Democrats want 78,000 more Afghan police, troops
  • President may decide this week, Levin says
  • Move could bring home more U.S. troops more quickly, senator says

Washington (CNN) -- The president is considering a proposal to further boost the size of Afghanistan security forces as a way to speed up the withdrawal of U.S. troops, a senior Democratic lawmaker said Tuesday.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he talked briefly to President Barack Obama about it on Monday.

"The words that I got was 'It is under consideration,' " Levin said, adding that he thought it would be decided "in the next few days."

Levin said he and his fellow lawmakers on the trip, Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, wanted the Afghan army and police increased by an additional 78,000. The security forces grew by 70,000 last year and are set to expand to 171,000 soldiers and 134,000 police officers by October.

Levin said the additional increase will be a gain both for the U.S. and Afghanistan.

"We believe that the proposed increase and the size and capability of the Afghan forces is a key part of our ticket to success in Afghanistan, of the mission that we have there, and is also critically important to the faster reduction of American forces from Afghanistan which will begin in July of this year," he said.

A lion's share of the cost of the additional troops and police probably would fall to the United States, according to Levin, who would not predict what impact it would have on the U.S. budget.

Levin suggested that Pakistan, a U.S. ally and major recipient of American aid, may oppose the increase by its next-door neighbor.

"I think there may be an issue with Pakistan not wanting to see a larger Afghan army," Levin said during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol. Levin returned from Afghanistan on Sunday. He said Pakistani leaders had long insisted that Afghanistan do more to stop insurgents crossing their shared border.

"They can't have it both ways," Levin said. "If they want the Afghans to take greater responsibility on their side of the border to stop the flow then they should not object to the Afghan security forces being enlarged."

A spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy in Washington would not say directly if his country would oppose a build-up of Afghan troops. However, the spokesman, who insisted on anonymity, said it is the sovereign right of Afghanistan to determine the size of its army and policy. And the spokesman said Pakistan offers its cooperation in helping to bring peace and stability to neighboring countries.

Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan had no comment on the suggestion that Pakistan is opposing the increase. But he agreed that the issue of more troops and police in Afghanistan is being talked about in Washington.

"There is ongoing discussion, but no decisions have been made," Lapan told CNN, adding that the goal still stands for more than 300,000 by the end of the year.

Levin also confirmed that the Senate will have to wait until March to hear from the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus.

"I wish we could have him here earlier," Levin said. "But we obviously are not going to ask that he be brought back for a hearing. It's only when he is back for other purposes that we would have him in for a hearing."