By Mike Mount
The Obama administration is considering the possibility of removing all U.S. troops in Afghanistan after the NATO combat mission officially finishes at the end of 2014, White House officials said Tuesday.
The comments by Ben Rhodes, the White House's deputy national security adviser, come as the Pentagon and White House mull over the number of troops that could be left in Afghanistan after 2014 to fight insurgents and train Afghan security forces.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and President Obama are scheduled to meet on Friday in Washington.
Rhodes said the administration is considering a range of options, with one scenario having no U.S. troops there. The range, according to defense officials, had until recently been between 6,000 to 15,000 U.S. troops possibly remaining in the country, based on an assessment by the U.S. top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen.
"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, again, to assure the stability of the Afghan government and the denial of that safe haven," Rhodes said.
"That's what causes us to look for different potential troop numbers or not having potential troops in the country," he continued.
Rhodes said there were no expectations on any deal on post-2014 troop levels during the Karzai visit, and he said it could be months before any decision was made.
The White House remains committed to ensuring Afghanistan does not return to its status as a safe haven for Al Qaeda, Rhodes said
"The president does not view these negotiations as having a goal of keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan," he said. "And we're guided by the shared missions that we've agreed to with the Afghans, the training and equipping of their forces, and counterterrorism."
But the United States also is insistent on legal protection for any troops in Afghanistan after 2014.
If there is no agreement on that between the United States and Karzai between now and the end of 2014, then it could lead to a similar situation for the United States when it left Iraq.
The refusal by the Iraq government to extend legal protections for U.S. troops after the end of the war in Iraq was a major reason the United States left the country with no residual military training force.
But Karzai has said he would like for U.S. troops to remain after the end of the NATO mission. He also has been highly critical of the troops over the years, following incidents in which U.S. forces have killed civilians.
U.S. defense officials are playing a wait-and-see game on what the Karzai visit will produce.
As one defense official told CNN on Monday about the Afghan president, "It's Karzai; who knows what he will want on any given day."