WASHINGTON — The top U.S. military commander in the Middle East told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he recommended the U.S. leave 13,600 troops in Afghanistan, and that he assumed the NATO allies would contribute “around 50 percent” of the U.S. total, about 6,500.

Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, said he envisioned a post-2014 force in Afghanistan of about 20,000 troops, far more than the number the Obama administration and NATO are considering.

U.S. and NATO leaders revealed late last month that they intended to keep 8,000 to 12,000 troops in Afghanistan after combat troops leave at the end of next year.

Mattis says the U.S. and NATO must send a message of commitment to Afghanistan and the region.

He also praised the much-criticized Afghan defense forces, saying their willingness to fight has made the drawdown possible.

“The pace is what makes it optimal for me to support it fully,” he noted. “To not bring American forces down until after this fighting season … I support the pace and I support the number.”

Testifying with Adm. William McRaven, the U.S. Special Operations Command chief, Mattis identified Iran’s nuclear program as the region’s biggest concern.

“Iran remains the single most significant regional threat,” he said, noting Iran’s increasing bellicose public statements, and added that Iran’s “continuing support of the murderous Assad regime” in Syria and the fomenting of other global conflicts “could also spark a disaster.”

He also said that the postponed deployment of the USS Harry Truman aircraft carrier last month -- leaving one carrier in the Persian Gulf, an early casualty of sequestration -- would “make it more difficult to deter Iran.”

Yet, the Truman would be “maintained at enhanced readiness level, and would be ready to deploy on short notice,” he said.

“I would caution any enemy that would take advantage,” he said. The U.S. forces capabilities in the Persian Gulf are still strong enough to make it “the enemy’s longest and worst day” if a conflict arises.

Stars and Stripes’ Joyce Tsai and The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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