Three days before Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, meets with President Barack Obama in Washington, White House officials said Tuesday that the United States is considering all options, including potentially leaving no troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014 when foreign combat forces are to leave.
The United States and Afghanistan are negotiating details of a bilateral security agreement, including the scope of a potential U.S. troop presence, after 2014.
Recent media reports have quoted unnamed U.S. officials as saying President Obama received a recommendation from military commanders to maintain between 6,000 and 20,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014.
But the reports say the White House is considering a smaller contingent, with as few as 3,000 troops, to train Afghan forces and help prevent al-Qaida from using the country again as a haven.
Senior Obama administration officials say the question of specific U.S. troop levels is less important than achieving key goals.
Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes said, "The way the president approaches this is not aiming to keep a certain number of troops within Afghanistan. The objective of the bilateral security agreement negotiations is not to accomplish a number of U.S. troops in a country. It is to accomplish the two goals of denying a safe haven to al-Qaida, and training and equipping Afghan national security forces."
Rhodes was asked by reporters whether President Obama would not rule out a force level of no U.S. troops in Afghanistan in favor of conducting counterterrorism operations through other means. Rhodes replied, "Yes, we wouldn't rule out any option." He added that Friday's talks between the U.S. and Afghan presidents would not finalize any troop number decision. Rhodes said Mr. Obama will consider all aspects of the situation, including recommendations from U.S. and NATO commander Marine Corps General John Allen.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said, "As we have said in the past, the president is in the process of reviewing proposals and when he is ready to announce a decision, he will do that."
After the withdrawal of a 30,000-member surge force last year, 68,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan. Plans call for continuing gradual reductions toward a milestone when Afghan forces assume the full security lead this year.
Deputy Assistant to the President and Coordinator for South Asia Doug Lute avoided discussion of any potential U.S. troop numbers mentioned in recent media reports.
"If you assume that we make more progress against al-Qaida, then potentially the C.T. [i.e., counterterrorism] mission two years from now is less than it might otherwise be. If you assume that the Afghan capacity continues on a positive glide path and we reach our goals in terms of the development of the army and the police, then you can imagine that they require less support," he said.
Lute said U.S., coalition and Afghan forces have made a lot of progress against al-Qaida. But he added, "the job is not done," and said the training of Afghan forces is incomplete.
Recently, the Taliban issued a statement threatening to continue fighting the Afghan government if U.S. forces remain in the country after 2014.
President Karzai arrived in Washington on Tuesday and will participate in several activities, including talks with U.S. officials and a visit to wounded U.S. soldiers.
Friday's talks between President Obama and President Karzai will include U.S. and Afghan delegations, and will be followed by a working lunch and a joint news conference.