WASHINGTON/NEW YORK: President Hamid Karzai's visit to Washington this week will centre on shaping the US commitment to Afghanistan after the bulk of American combat forces leave in two years, according to experts and officials cited in the American media.
The Afghan leader worries about US abandonment, fearing a repeat of history when the United States supported the mujahedin in their fight against the Soviets then walked away after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
Karzai has expressed a desire for additional US help with finances and security beyond the 2014 drawdown date when most international combat troops are scheduled to depart.
The Obama administration is open to a so-called zero option that would involve leaving no American troops in Afghanistan after 2014, when the NATO combat mission there comes to an end, a report in The New York Times said Wednesday.
But The Washington Post said that groups within the Obama administration are pushing to keep "no more than a few thousand" troops in Afghanistan after 2014, raising the prospect that the US will be unable to keep its promise to fully train and equip Afghan security forces.
While President Barack Obama has made no secret of his desire to withdraw American troops as rapidly as possible, the plans for a postwar American presence in Afghanistan have generally envisioned a residual force of thousands of troops to carry out counterterrorism operations and to help train and equip Afghan soldiers.
In a conference call with reporters, the deputy national security adviser, Benjamin Rhodes, said that leaving no troops would be an option that we would consider, adding that the president does not view these negotiations as having a goal of keeping US troops in Afghanistan.
Military experts have said it is difficult to conceive of how the United States might achieve even its limited post-2014 goals in Afghanistan without any kind of troop presence. That suggests the White House is staking out a negotiating position with both the Pentagon and with Karzai, as he and Obama begin to work out an agreement covering the post-2014 American role in Afghanistan.
Discussing the administration's planning, Rhodes said that the 'core goal' of the United States is to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda and to ensure that they can never return to Afghanistan.
To that end, American military officers in Kabul and at the Pentagon have been developing plans for a commando force that could carry out raids against terrorist groups. Such a force would also need logistical support and arrangements for rapid medical evacuation, as well as helicopters that could whisk them to the battlefield and warplanes that could carry out airstrikes if they needed additional firepower.
Another objective, Rhodes said, would be to ensure that Afghan national security forces are trained and equipped.
According to a recent Pentagon report, only one of the Afghan National Army's 23 brigades is capable of operating without support from the United States and other NATO nations.
To help the Afghan military become more self-sufficient, the United States and its NATO allies have been discussing plans to advise Afghan troops after 2014. Gen. John Allen, the American commander in Kabul, initially outlined a series of options that ranged from 6,000 to 20,000 troops to carry out such missions.
After the White House pressed for lower troop options, the Pentagon offered three plans that would leave 3,000, 6,000 and 9,000. Given the demanding nature of the mission in Afghanistan, the Pentagon officials have indicated the upper end of that limit is more realistic.
Douglas Lute, the senior White House aide on Afghanistan, suggested that the requirement for troops could be low if the United States made progress against Al Qaeda over the next two years and the Afghan military improved.
"The ranges are completely derivative from different assumptions about the variables," Lute said.And that process with John Allen continues even as recently as today.
Elaborating the current thinking, the Post said that some in the administration are pressing for a force of 2,500, arguing that a light touch would be the most constructive way to cap the costly, unpopular war.
Those troop levels are significantly lower than what some senior military officials have advocated, arguing that a sudden disengagement could lead to the collapse of a frail state and the onset of a new civil war.
The low number also is a far cry from figures in the 10,000-to-30,000 range discussed among NATO allies and some US officials as recently as a year ago.
White House officials said Tuesday that they have not ruled out leaving no troops at all when the UN security mandate sanctioning the international coalition expires, saying they might find non-military means to meet US objectives in Afghanistan.
Karzai will meet Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the White House on Friday. On Thursday, he will confer at the Pentagon with Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta.
He is also scheduled to speak at Georgetown University on Afghanistan's future.