As President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai meet at the White House Friday morning, big questions about the future of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan will be on the table.
While Mr. Karzai has already met this week with Senate leaders and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, foreign-policy insiders say there is still no clear picture of how many — if any — U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond next year.
There is also still no answer to the deeper question of how much economic aid budget-strained Washington is willing to commit to Afghanistan for the foreseeable future — a problem compounded by the fact that Mr. Karzai has spent the week quietly asking "for a level of aid that probably exceeds what we're willing to provide in dollar terms," according to Anthony Cordesman, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic International Studies.
An aide to Mrs. Clinton, meanwhile, said Mr. Karzai's sweep through Washington consisted of a "rolling conversation, which culminates in the two presidents sitting down" together Friday.
Analysts say the administration is struggling to resolve how best to withdraw from the decade-old war, which currently costs an estimated $28 million a day, while avoiding an all-out security meltdown and return to power of the Taliban or other anti-American Islamist factions.
Wriggling at the center of the challenge is the fact that Mr. Karzai, Washington's ally in Kabul for the past 11 years, is constitutionally forbidden from seeking re-election after next year.
The result has the Obama administration attempting to leverage assurances from the Afghan president that he will do his best to bring legitimate and fair elections to the fore in Afghanistan next year — all while U.S. forces and aid organizations are departing the war-torn nation.
So far this week, the attempt saw White House officials tell reporters in a highly touted background conference call that Mr. Obama is seriously considering the option of leaving no U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014.
For his part, Mr. Karzai has declined to say how many U.S. troops he hopes will remain.
American forces entered Afghanistan in October 2001 and swiftly toppled a Taliban government harboring Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.
U.S. troop levels hovered below 40,000 until 2009. Under President Obama, the number rose to a peak of roughly 100,000 in 2010. Currently, there are about 66,000 U.S. troops on the ground there.
While some Republicans on Capitol Hill — specifically, Sen. John McCain of Arizona — have cautioned loudly against drawing the level down too quickly, some analysts argue the administration would be well-served to quickly refocus its Afghan strategy toward more civilian-based institution building.
"We need to drop the attitude that we've had over the past decade that we can consistently compromise good government for the sake of military exigencies," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior foreign-policy fellow at the Brookings Institution whose recent book, "Aspiration and Ambivalence," examines the U.S. mission in Afghanistan since 2001.
Ms. Felbab-Brown said the U.S. does "need to continue to provide military assistance after 2014, but we also need to focus far more on emphasizing the need to improve governance in Afghanistan."
"Good governance needs to be elevated to the level presently enjoyed by the military effort," she said.
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