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Don't shrink Afghan forces, two key Senate Democrats warn Obama

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (R) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) arrive at the Senate Armed Service
U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (R) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) arrive at the Senate Armed Service

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two Senate Democrats urged the White House on Friday to reconsider plans to shrink Afghan national security forces by a third after 2015, saying a robust Afghan fighting force will be needed to fight al Qaeda and its allies.

The appeal comes as President Barack Obama weighs how large of an American force to leave behind in Afghanistan after NATO declares the costly, unpopular war over at the end of 2014 and most foreign forces return home.

Officials say the White House is considering keeping between 3,000 and 9,000 troops in the country, a lower range than initially recommended by the top commander in Afghanistan.

Carl Levin of Michigan, head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and committee member Jack Reed of Rhode Island said Obama, a fellow Democrat, should use the U.S. troop level announcement - expected in the coming months - as an opportunity to revisit plans to slash the Afghan forces from 352,000 to 230,000 after 2015.

"We support the establishment of a small number for the post-2014 (American) force," they wrote to Tom Donilon, Obama's national security adviser.

"At the same time, we are convinced that it will be necessary for the success of the mission, i.e., to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for al Qaeda and its affiliated organizations, to reconsider plans to reduce the size of the (Afghan forces)."

Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, has estimated that the United States would end up paying about $2.5 billion a year for Afghan security forces totaling 230,000.

He called the expense "pretty cheap insurance."

Levin and Reed said the additional expense for keeping a larger Afghan force would be affordable, given the projected drop in funding for wartime operations.

"We recommend that when the president announces his decision on the post-2014 force, that he also announce he is reviewing the question of the size of the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) after 2015," they wrote.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Xavier Briand)