WASHINGTON - The White House on Tuesday said for the first time 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 on Friday at the White House with President 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 United States 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.
'A range of ways'
Obama is considering a number of options for maintaining U.S. 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 counter-terrorism."
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.