US officials have raised the possibility of a complete military withdrawal from Afghanistan for the first time, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai arrived in Washington for three days of discussions over military and economic ties.
In a briefing for journalists in advance of Karzai’s visit, US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the White House is prepared to consider all options for US troop levels after 2014, including a so-called “zero option” if conditions allowed.
Karzai today is to hold his first face-to-face talks with US President Barack Obama since last year’s NATO summit in Chicago. The Obama administration is committed to withdrawing the majority of its 68,000-strong military stationed in Afghanistan by the end of next year — with the size of the remaining force still to be decided, as well as the key question of legal immunity for US military operating in the country post-2014.
The talks between the two governments were “not aiming to keep a certain number of US troops in Afghanistan,” said Doug Lute, deputy assistant to Obama and White House coordinator for South Asia. The final number would be “significantly lower” than the 68,000 troops currently on the ground, Lute said.
Asked if the troop level options included zero, Rhodes replied: “That would be an option we would consider.”
The White House warned that no agreements or decisions are expected to result from this week’s visit by Karzai, describing it as “a good time for the two presidents to sit down and consult” ahead of the US military draw-down and the Afghan elections scheduled for April 2014.
General John Allen, the NATO commander and top US general in Afghanistan, has recommended keeping between 6,000 and 15,000 troops in the country after 2014. However, the Afghan leader is said to want an end to US military operations in villages, as well as protection from militants based across the border with Pakistan.
The final number of any US forces in Afghanistan after 2014 would depend on the perceived strength of al-Qaeda and its affiliates in the country, the progression of Afghan security forces and the legal protection granted to US forces by the Afghan government — the last a sticking point in the bilateral security agreement being negotiated between the two governments with a deadline of November this year.
Karzai also wants the US to provide helicopters, heavy weapons and other advanced military equipment for Afghanistan’s army, as well as warplanes for the Afghan air force, and for humanitarian and reconstruction aid to be channeled through Afghan government ministries rather than via Western aid agencies. Kabul has accused the US of fostering corruption by giving funding directly to warlords.
Officials are also to broach the on-again, off-again peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
The prospects for talks has been helped by Pakistan’s recent release of groups of imprisoned Taliban commanders, including eight people on New Year’s Eve, following an improvement in the Afghan-Pakistan relations that are crucial to any hopes of a peaceful settlement.
Hopes have been further raised by a meeting in France between the Taliban and the Afghan High Peace Council last month, which US officials have described as “promising.” Direct talks with the Karzai government have been ruled out by the Taliban, which wants to negotiate with the US government, while the US says that the Taliban should speak directly to the Afghan government.
The Afghan leader was also scheduled to meet US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton yesterday — who is back at work after hospitalization — as well as outgoing US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.