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.
"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 But all U.S. troops were withdrawn from the country in December 2011 after negotiations failed.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.
Military analyst Anthony Cordesman, a regional specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the Afghan president is wrong in that belief.
"The U.S. strategic interest in Afghanistan is of limited proportion," focused on counterterrorism, Mr. Cordesman said. "To what extent President Karzai understands that is an open question."
Washington and Kabul are signaling to each other with these pre-negotiating public statements, said regional specialist Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation.
"These are the opening offers from the merchants in the souk," Mr. Bergen said. "Now the hard bargaining can begin."
Mr. Karzai has often expressed his impatience with the unaccountability of international forces, and he has criticized their tactics in angry terms, especially when they lead to civilian casualties.
Mr. Karzai is "going to be very reluctant to accede to a bottom-line U.S. demand: that U.S. troops are immune from prosecution," Mr. Bergen said.
By raising the prospect of a total U.S. withdrawal, U.S. officials might be trying to signal that they are not bluffing, he said.
But it was a clumsy strategic message to Afghanistan and the rest of world, Mr. Bergen said, noting that Afghans "well remember" that the U.S. turned its back on them as their country slid into civil war with the Taliban after the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989.
Mr. Cordesman said the zero option might be just a messaging strategy, "but it reflects very real attitudes" in the U.S. and among its allies for whom "the desire to get out is much greater."
He noted that current international aid to Afghanistan is seven times greater than Kabul's own revenue, adding that the military and civil aspects of the transition are intertwined.
"Zero means zero civilian aid workers [and diplomats]," he said. "Perhaps a secure embassy in Kabul, and a consulate or two, but that would be it."
Mr. Cordesman said that because there are no public plans for a post-2014 U.S. presence in Afghanistan, there is no way to know how many troops would be needed then or how to measure their success.
"We should be looking for a plan, not a number," in talks this week, he said.
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