WASHINGTON — The White House said for the first time Tuesday that it’s possible that no U.S. troops will be left in Afghanistan after 2014. The statement appeared to be a bid to pressure Afghan President Hamid Karzai to accept American terms for keeping U.S. forces in his country to train Afghan security forces and prevent a return of al Qaida.
The acknowledgement that a “zero option” of troops is being considered came a day before Karzai begins a state visit to Washington that concludes with talks Friday at the White House with President Barack Obama.
The United States is seeking an accord under which any U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan after December 2014 – when a pullout of the U.S.-led NATO combat force is to be completed – would be subject to the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice, not Afghan law.
The Obama administration also is believed to want provisions allowing U.S. special forces to launch raids against al Qaida or other foreign terrorist groups without Karzai’s permission and for the U.S. to detain high-value suspected extremists.
Karzai is demanding that the United States turn over high-value terrorist suspects that it retained last year after it turned over control of a major detention center to the Afghan government. He also has long demanded a say on night raids by U.S. special forces that Karzai contends stoke support for the Taliban and opposition to his government, and he’s demanding the closure of small U.S. military outposts in the countryside.
Obama is considering a number of options for maintaining American troops in Afghanistan after 2014 to train Afghan security forces and mount operations to prevent a return by al Qaida and other foreign extremists, Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, said in a call with reporters.
The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, reportedly has presented options calling for keeping between 6,000 and 20,000 U.S. troops in the country.
Rhodes, however, confirmed that Obama could decide not to keep any U.S. soldiers there.
“We wouldn’t rule out any option,” Rhodes said. “We’re not guided by the goal of a certain number of U.S. troops in the country. We’re guided by the objective that the president has set: disrupt, dismantle, defeat al Qaida. And we’re guided by the shared missions that we’ve agreed to with the Afghans, the training and equipping of their forces, and counterterrorism.”
He said that those objectives “could be met in a range of ways,” an apparent reference to the possibility of using pilotless drone aircraft based outside Afghanistan to hit al Qaida targets and using private contractors or other countries to train Afghan security forces.
Douglas Lute, a retired Army general who serves as Obama’s top coordinator on Afghanistan policy, noted in the same briefing that Obama decided against keeping a U.S. military training mission in Iraq after its government refused to allow its members to be covered by U.S. military law.
“As we know from our Iraq experience, if there are no authorities granted by the sovereign state, then there’s no room for a follow-on U.S. military mission,” Lute said.
Both said they expected no decision on the troop level would be made for several months.
A senior U.S. official said that the talk was not a bargaining tactic and that Karzai has been told there will be no follow-up U.S. military training and counterterrorism mission unless the two nations sign a formal agreement governing the status of the U.S. troops there.
“It’s not a tactic, it’s a fact,” said the U.S. official, who requested anonymity in order to discuss the issue.
Another senior U.S. official and several experts, however, said that the comments by Rhodes and Lute were bargaining tactics aimed at putting Karzai on notice that he would have to agree to the U.S. terms for the bilateral security agreement.
The administration is well aware that the Afghan army will still require American military training and guidance – as well as U.S. airpower and logistical support – especially if Karzai is to have any chance of pressuring the Taliban-led insurgency into accepting his offer to open peace talks, they said.
“That’s not the preferred thing,” the second senior U.S. official said of the zero option. “I think our preferred thing is a modest but real counterterrorism and training presence” of about 10,000 troops.
At the same time, top administration officials are coming to terms with the possibility that, given rising domestic opposition to the 11-year-old war and escalating budget-cutting pressures, no U.S. troops should remain in Afghanistan after 2014, said the senior U.S. official, who requested anonymity in order to discuss the sensitive issue.
Thomas Lynch, a research fellow at the National Defense University, said that while the Iraqis weren’t bothered by Obama’s decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq, Karzai is in a more difficult position given the enduring strength of the Taliban-led insurgency.
The White House acknowledgement of the zero option “is the setup so that this is all out there before Karzai ever sits down,” said Lynch, a retired U.S. Army officer who served as a top adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan to retired Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In addition to getting the terms it wants for a follow-on U.S. military mission, the Obama administration likely will want Karzai to make pledges aimed at addressing opposition in Congress to promises of billions more in U.S. aid to Afghanistan, he said.
“Karzai is going to have to prostrate himself on the altar of political promises,” including promising not to seek re-election when his current term ends in 2014 and maintaining protections for women’s rights and human rights in the Afghan constitution, he said.
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