- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 9, 2013

All U.S. troops could withdraw from Afghanistan next year if enough progress has been made against al Qaeda or if the Afghan government does not grant immunity to American forces after the end of their combat mission in 2014, the Obama administration says.

“That would be an option that we would consider,” Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin Rhodes told reporters.

Some scholars say putting the so-called “zero option” on the table so publicly sends the wrong message to U.S. allies in Afghanistan and the region as a whole.

The U.S. has about 66,000 troops in Afghanistan, about two-thirds of the more than 100,000 troops in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.

Since President Obama announced the end of 2014 as the target date for an end to the U.S. combat mission, administration officials have been trying to decide how many troops should remain as trainers for Afghan security forces and to hunt for al Qaeda members and other terrorists there.

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai (center) and his Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasul (left) ... more >

“The U.S. does not have an inherent objective of ‘X’ number of troops in Afghanistan,” Mr. Rhodes said. “We have an objective of making sure there’s no safe haven for al Qaeda within Afghanistan and making sure that the Afghan government has a security force that is sufficient.

“There are, of course, many different ways of accomplishing those objectives,” he said, “some of which might involve U.S. troops, some of which might not.”

He spoke in a conference call with reporters, previewing a White House meeting Friday between President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The presidents’ agenda includes the pace of withdrawal of U.S. forces and a broad agreement on the status of American troops in Afghanistan after 2014. Such an agreement would include legal protections shielding U.S. troops from prosecution in Afghan courts for acts committed on duty.

“They’ll have very candid discussions about the sorts of authorities, privileges and immunities that the [agreement] might feature,” retired Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, said of Mr. Obama and Mr. Karzai.

Mr. Lute is the White House’s special policy coordinator for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Without the U.N. Security Council mandate, which expires at the end of 2014, there is no legal basis for the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan, except treaties signed by its sovereign government.

U.S. officials tried for several years to reach a similar deal — a so-called status of forces agreement — with the Iraqi government. But all U.S. troops were withdrawn from the country in December 2011 after negotiations failed.

“As we know from our Iraq experience,” Mr. Lute said, “if there are no authorities granted by the sovereign state, then there is not room for a follow-on U.S. military mission.”

Mr. Karzai has said publicly that Afghans don’t need U.S. troops to stay past 2014, but he has stated they will likely remain because Afghanistan is too strategically important to the U.S.

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