US President Barack Obama looks on as his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai gestures during a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, yesterday.
WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai began a crucial round of talks yesterday that are expected to help determine how fast the US withdraws troops from Afghanistan and if it leaves a residual force after 2014.
Hosting Karzai at the White House, Obama faces the challenge of pressing ahead with his re-election pledge to continue winding down the war, while preparing Kabul to prevent a slide back into chaos and a Taliban resurgence once most Nato forces are gone by the end of next year.
White House officials have left open the possibility of a complete US withdrawal — as happened in Iraq in 2011 — an option that conflicts with the Pentagon’s view that thousands of troops will be needed to bolster and train fragile Afghan forces.
But talk of this “zero option” may be a gambit to squeeze concessions from Karzai, who has yet to agree on immunity from prosecution for any US forces that stay behind under a security pact being negotiated. It could also send a message to the Pentagon to scale back expectations of future troop levels.
The White House believes Obama and Karzai can narrow their differences in closed-door meetings.
But Obama aides expect no breakthroughs or concrete conclusions and say it will be months before he decides how many troops — if any — he wants to keep in Afghanistan.
Officials have said that the White House is asking for options to be developed for keeping between 3,000 and 9,000 troops.
General John Allen, the top US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, had initially suggested that 15,000 troops should remain — a number Obama would likely have a hard time selling to a war-weary American public.
With some 66,000 troops in Afghanistan, Obama is deciding on the pace of this year’s reductions. Nato allies are steadily reducing troop numbers and Afghan forces are due to take the lead role this year. However, doubts remain about their ability to shoulder full responsibility.
Obama once called Afghanistan a “war of necessity,” but he is heading into a second term, looking for an orderly way out of the conflict, sparked by the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks by Al Qaeda on the US.
Defence secretary nominee Chuck Hagel is likely to favour a sizable troop reduction.
Karzai told nothing to reporters as he entered the West Wing of the White House to start talks with Obama.
The Oval Office encounter — together with a working lunch with Obama, followed by a joint news conference at 1.15pm EST (1815 GMT) — caps meetings with Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and top lawmakers.
Also on the agenda for the Obama-Karzai talks are tentative reconciliation efforts involving Taliban insurgents. Those efforts have shown flickers of life after nearly 10 months of limbo.
Karzai and his US partners have not always seen eye to eye, even though the US military has been seen as crucial to securing his tenure from insurgents’ attempts to oust him.
In October, he accused the US of playing a double game by fighting the war in villages instead of going after those in neighbouring Pakistan which supports insurgents.
Adding to tensions has been a rash of deadly “insider” attacks by Afghan soldiers and police against Nato-led troops training or working with them.
“After a long and difficult past, we finally are, I believe, at the last chapter of establishing ... a sovereign Afghanistan that can govern and secure itself for the future,” Panetta told Karzai at the Pentagon.
He said both sides were committed to the goals approved at the Nato summit in Chicago in May, which calls for a continuing effort by Western nations to train, advise and assist Afghan forces, while pursuing a gradual pullout of troops by end-2014.
He sought to assure Karzai that the US would remain committed to his country.
He said that more than a decade of war had paved the way for Kabul to stand on its own.
“We’ve come a long way towards a shared goal of establishing a nation that you and we can be proud of, one that never again becomes a safe haven for terrorism.”
Karzai discussed with Clinton progress on reconciliation talks with the Taliban and the distribution of US aid.
He has pressed for more aid to be channeled into Afghan coffers, instead of being distributed via non-governmental and aid organisations.
The US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, John Sopko, has warned that it could be wasted without better planning and security.