By Mike Mount
The Obama administration's plan to solidify the number of U.S. troops that will be left in Afghanistan after the NATO-led operations end in 2014 should come into greater focus this week as Afghan President Hamid Karzai visits Washington.
With conversations scheduled at the State Department on Wednesday, the Pentagon on Thursday and the White House on Friday, Karzai should get a better sense of how the United States plans to maintain the relationship with his nation in the future.
At the Pentagon, Karzai will be briefed on the plans to keep thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to fight insurgents and to continue to train Afghan Security Forces.
But that plan hinges on what Karzai may want from the United States, according to Defense officials. It's no secret that Karzai wants total Afghan control of detention operations, meaning all Afghans being held by the United States and NATO allies would be turned over to Afghan authorities immediately.
The United States is not eager to give up control of those Afghan detainees because of concerns about whether Afghan authorities would properly handle their cases and under what authority they might be released.
It is unclear whether Karzai will push for the handover of prisoners before he makes any deals on legal protections for U.S. troops who will serve in Afghanistan after the official end of the NATO mission.
At least one senior defense official thinks that if Karzai gets what he wants while in Washington, then negotiations over those legal protections will be much easier later.
But other defense officials think it is impossible to know what Karzai will demand while he's in Washington.
"It's Karzai; who knows what he will want on any given day," one official said.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will discuss the post-2014 plan with NATO allies when he travels to Europe next week.
Later next week, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey will fly to NATO headquarters to talk about the plan with his allied peers in Brussels.
Defense officials said the feedback from the allies could shape the post-2014 plan.