WASHINGTON — On the eve of a visit by President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, the Obama administration said Tuesday it was open to a so-called zero option that would involve leaving no U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014, when the NATO combat mission there comes to an end.
While President Barack Obama has made no secret of his desire to withdraw U.S. troops as rapidly as possible, the plans for a postwar U.S. presence in Afghanistan have generally envisioned a residual force of thousands of troops to carry out counterterrorism operations and to help train and equip Afghan soldiers.
In a conference call with reporters, the deputy national security adviser, Benjamin Rhodes, said that leaving no troops “would be an option that we would consider,” adding that “the president does not view these negotiations as having a goal of keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan.”
Military analysts have said it is difficult to conceive of how the United States might achieve even its limited post-2014 goals in Afghanistan without any kind of troop presence. That suggests the White House is staking out a negotiating position with both the Pentagon and with Karzai, as he and Obama begin to work out an agreement covering the post-2014 U.S. role in Afghanistan.
Discussing the administration’s planning, Rhodes said that the “core goal” of the United States is to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida” and to “ensure that they can never return to Afghanistan.”
To that end, U.S. military officers in Kabul and at the Pentagon have been developing plans for a commando force that could carry out raids against terrorist groups. Such a force would also need logistical support and arrangements for rapid medical evacuation, as well as helicopters that could whisk them to the battlefield and warplanes that could carry out airstrikes if they needed additional firepower.
Another objective, Rhodes said, would be to “ensure that Afghan national security forces are trained and equipped.”