(NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has been embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan this month. On Morning Edition, he reported from the eastern province of Ghazni about what's being called "the last major combat offensive of the Afghan War." Now, he tells us about his interview with the No. 2 U.S. officer in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti.)
One thing is certain. The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will drop by 23,000 by September. At that point, 68,000 U.S. troops will be serving in the country, fighting the Taliban and training Afghan soldiers and police.
Any further reductions are now at the center of a debate. It's all a game of numbers.
Polls showing that a majority of Americans want troops to come home faster after 11 years of war. Some White House officials reportedly would like to cut another 10,000 U.S. troops before year's end, and another 10,000 next year.
The top American officer, Gen. John Allen, is a bit more hesitant on troop cuts. He told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March that "significant combat power" will be needed next year. How many troops? The general said that he would have to complete an analysis for the White House, but that "68,0000 is a "good going-in number."
This week in Afghanistan during an interview, the No. 2 officer went further. Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti said he thought the U.S. should maintain that 68,000 troop number into next year.
Those troops, he said, will be needed to continue combat operations against stubborn Taliban safe havens, especially in eastern Afghanistan, and to train Afghan troops. Scaparrotti also said the Afghans next year will be taking control in districts around the country that are still troublesome, so the U.S. may be called on for more help.
Scaparrotti, who's in charge of day-to-day operations in the country, said the American command would be able to complete an assessment of the troops needed by year's end.
"I think when we get into the first of the year ... we'll have a better feel because we'll be down at [68,000 troops] ... and we'll have some time to look at it," he said. "At that time I can look at that assessment and know what we're probably going to need."
So, will there be 68,000 U.S. troops into next year?
"I think likely [68,000] from my personal perspective, at this point," he said.
And into next spring?
"Well, at least. I'm going to leave it at that," he said. "Personally, I would like to stay at 68,000 through the first part of the year. And then again we'll make an assessment ... and we'll decide what we need going forward."
A final answer from President Obama on how many U.S. troops will be needed in Afghanistan in 2013 and 2014 — the year the Afghans are supposed to take full control of their security — is likely months away, but the arguments already are being formed.