President Barack Obama hasn’t been presented with recommendations on the number of U.S. troops to keep in Afghanistan after 2014, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said today.
While assessments have been provided to the White House, “we have, as of this moment, not presented any of the options to the president, nor has the president made a decision,” Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon.
Panetta made the remarks after meeting privately today with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is in Washington this week for talks that will include future troop levels, U.S. aid and a “status of forces agreement” that would give any American soldiers remaining in the country immunity from local prosecution.
Before his meeting with Karzai this morning, Panetta said in welcoming remarks that the U.S. is “fully committed” to helping the people of Afghanistan secure and govern their own country, and he said the two nations have a strong bond.
“I can assure you, Mr. Secretary, that Afghanistan will, with the help that you provide, be able to provide security to its people and to protect its borders so Afghanistan would not ever again be threatened by terrorists from across our borders,” Karzai responded.
While Obama has pledged to withdraw most U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, Pentagon officials have talked of keeping a residual force for training and anti-terrorist operations. White House officials earlier this week said the possibilities include leaving no U.S. troops after the end of next year.
As the U.S. and Afghanistan work to negotiate a post-2014 agreement, the U.S. is insisting that any troops remaining be given immunity from local prosecution. Failure to reach such an accord led to the removal of U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011.
Karzai is seeking assurances of continued aid and weaponry from the U.S. and allies as well as guarantees that they will turn over to Afghanistan all prisoners taken in the country.
White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said Jan. 8 that it’s possible Obama will decide to leave no troops in Afghanistan after 2014.
“I’d say that would be an option we would consider,” Rhodes told reporters on a conference call when asked if the Obama administration is considering withdrawing all troops.
Obama “does not view these negotiations as having the goal of keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan,” he said.
Karzai met late yesterday at the Capitol with a small group of U.S. senators, including Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
Senator Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat who participated in the meeting, said Karzai didn’t say how many U.S. troops he thought should remain.
“He indicated he didn’t have a specific number,” said Casey, who said that Karzai was “relaxed and upbeat” at the meeting.
Karzai didn’t indicate he has any plans to attempt to stay in power after his current term ends in 2014, Casey said in an interview.
“He gave every indication to us that he’s not going to try to hang onto power,” Casey said.
After today’s visit with Panetta at the Pentagon, Karzai went to the State Department to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, followed by a working dinner there with Panetta and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.
“Here at the State Department, we think a full range of issues are going to be discussed,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said before the talks. “Obviously, aspects of the security transition, the elections in 2014 and preparing for them, the economic transition, regional integration, support for the Afghan reconciliation efforts, those will all be central themes in the discussions this evening.”
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