WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said on Monday he thinks that 10,000 U.S. troops should remain in Afghanistan after 2014, when President Barack Obama wants to withdraw most combat troops.
McConnell has just finished a visit to Afghanistan with a small group of his fellow Republican senators, his seventh trip there in the past decade.
"I think we're going to need a minimum of about 10,000 troops here to provide adequate training and counterterrorism in the post-2014 period. And we anticipate there'll be forces from other countries who will remain here beyond 2014 as well," McConnell told reporters on a conference call during a stop in Italy after leaving Afghanistan.
McConnell said he met with military officials including General John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, during his trip and that the officials felt the Afghans would be able to handle their own security after 2014 if there was a "residual" force that could be involved in training and counterterrorism.
"This is the first time I've come back from Afghanistan with a feeling of genuine optimism," McConnell said.
Obama and visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed on Friday to speed up the handover of combat operations in Afghanistan to Afghan forces, raising the prospect of an accelerated U.S. withdrawal from the country and underscoring Obama's determination to wind down a long, unpopular war.
The Obama administration has been considering a residual force of between 3,000 and 9,000 troops - far fewer than some U.S. commanders propose. Republicans had cautioned the administration against allowing anything other than conditions on the ground and security concerns to dictate the pace of the U.S. withdrawal.
On Monday, McConnell repeated what he said was strong praise for the Afghan forces from military officials he had met with.
"There's a widely held view that the Afghan National Army is definitely coming up to speed, that these are tough fighters who'll be able to deal with the Taliban or any other internal threats in the future and also rising optimism that the Afghan local police will be an effective force as well," he said.
(Reporting By Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)