Published On: Thu, Jan 10th, 2013

U.S. Floats an Afghan ‘Zero Option’

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by DION NISSENBAUM

WASHINGTON—White House officials speaking ahead of meetings with Afghan President Hamid Karzai emphasized that the U.S. would consider pulling all troops from his country by 2015, as the Obama administration negotiates the future of the American military role there.

Airing such a scenario could give the U.S. leverage in talks with Mr. Karzai, who arrived in Washington Tuesday for meetings with President Barack Obama and his top aides.

“That would be an option that we would consider,” deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes said when asked by reporters about the zero-troop option during a conference call. “The president does not view these negotiations as having a goal of keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan.”

At the urging of the White House, the Pentagon has given scaled-back force-level options that would keep roughly 3,000, 6,000 or 9,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014, when the allied mission formally ends, The Wall Street Journal reported last week. There now are about 66,000 U.S. troops there.

A senior North Atlantic Treaty Organization official said last week that the figures being cited by the Pentagon and the White House may be designed to pressure Mr. Karzai to cut a deal.

U.S. and Afghan negotiators are working on a long-term deal. If talks stall, the U.S. would be compelled to pull all of its troops out of Afghanistan—as it did in 2011 when similar talks with Iraq faltered over a U.S. demand for legal immunity for troops that remained.

“If there is no authority granted by the sovereign state, then there’s not room for a follow-on U.S. military mission,” said Douglas Lute, the retired U.S. Army lieutenant general who serves as Mr. Obama’s special coordinator on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Pentagon wants to keep at least 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, officials said, to ensure enough forces to support Afghan troops and continue counterterrorism operations in the region.

Talk of a smaller U.S. presence has spurred concerns among some Western allies and strategists about whether the remaining forces would be able to prevent another era of instability in Afghanistan.

The senior NATO official said a force of less than 6,000 would have “very limited” capacity. It would also make it much harder for the Pentagon to convince other allies to send troops as trainers, the NATO official said.

Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former top commander in Afghanistan, said that while he didn’t want to recommend any specific troop level, a small force in Afghanistan would help boost the confidence of the Afghan government as well as provide stronger ties with the security forces.

“We certainly don’t want to keep huge numbers for our purposes, or Afghan purposes,” said Gen. McChrystal. “But I think a small number in selected locations does provide a visible commitment of America.”

Anthony Cordesman, a national-security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it is realistic for the U.S. to consider a “zero option” because of possible opposition to a post-2014 troop presence from Taliban leaders and others. “Is it the most probable option the administration is seeking at this time? No,” he said. “But we didn’t have a zero option in Iraq until we had a zero reality.”
—Julian E. Barnes and Adam Entous contributed to this article.

Write to Dion Nissenbaum at dion.nissenbaum@wsj.com

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