WASHINGTON - With President Obama and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai set to sit down later this week for talks, a top White House aide said on Tuesday that Obama has not ruled out the possibility that all U.S. troops will be pulled out of the country when the U.S. combat mission expires in 2014.
Karzai is traveling to the United States for highly anticipated talks with administration officials, including a sit-down with Obama at the White House on Friday. White House officials said Tuesday that Obama won't be making any post-2014 U.S. troop-level decisions during this week's visit.
More than 66,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, a number that is expected to be cut significantly later this year and into 2014, when the U.S. combat role is set to end and Afghans are supposed to take full responsibility for their security. At the height of a troop surge in 2010, there were about 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan.
The two governments are negotiating a deal to allow a residual U.S. military presence to remain beyond 2014 to conduct counterterrorism operations and train Afghan troops, but White House officials indicated on Tuesday that it is possible Obama could call for a complete pullout by the end of next year.
"That would be an option that we would consider, because the president does not view these negotiations as having a goal of keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan," said Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser. "The U.S. does not have an inherent objective of X number of troops in Afghanistan; we have an objective of making sure there is no safe haven for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and making sure the Afghan government has a security force that is sufficient to ensure the stability of the Afghan government."
The comments from Rhodes marked the first time that the administGen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has presented Obama with a series of options for a residual U.S. presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014. White House officials have declined to comment on the size or scope of the missions as recommended by Allen, but options presented to the president include fewer than 10,000 troops, according to Associated Press citing unnamed officials.
In addition to his talk with Obama, Karzai will meet separately with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday.
ration has publicly stated that leaving no troops in Afghanistan after 2014 is a possibility.