WASHINGTON The United States is considering pulling out all its troops from Afghanistan next year but is far from making a decision, White House and Pentagon officials said on Tuesday, but Afghan officials expressed skepticism that President Barack Obama would back a complete withdrawal.
Amid tensions between Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the path forward, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that a "zero option" of leaving no U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014 is among the policy possibilities under consideration.
"This is not a decision that is imminent," Carney said.
Obama is committed to winding down U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The United States has been talking with officials in Afghanistan about keeping a small residual force there of perhaps 8,000 troops after 2014.
At the Pentagon, spokesman George Little played down friction with Karzai and expressed confidence that there was still "plenty of time and space" to negotiate a bilateral security pact allowing for U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan.
Karzai suspended talks on that pact in June, accusing Washington of mixed messages regarding peace talks with the Taliban. It was among the latest signs of deep tensions between U.S. officials and the Afghan leader. A June 27 video conference between Obama and Karzai aimed at lowering tensions was confrontational, officials said.
"I wouldn't say that we're frustrated. We continue to work through issues," Little said. "We realize that there are going to be points of contention from time to time. That's natural of any partnership. But we think we can get through them."
Senior Afghan figures close to Karzai expressed skepticism that the United States would consider a complete withdrawal.
"Both sides understand how to pressure each other. But both the U.S. and Afghanistan fully understand the need for foreign troops, especially U.S. ones, to stay beyond 2014 and that it is vital for security here and in the wider region," a top palace official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
"We don't think the U.S. will compromise on that, because past experience of abandoning Afghanistan was that the country descended into chaos," the official said, recalling the bitter civil war that raged after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal and subsequent toppling of the Soviet-backed government of Mohammad Najibullah in 1992.
Much of Kabul was gutted in the ensuing conflict between rival warlords until the Taliban seized control of the country in 1996 and introduced their austere Islamic regime.
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Zahir Azimi said there had been no decisions on the pace and scale of a U.S. withdrawal, and similar scenarios had circulated in the past.
A former Karzai political adviser, Nasrullah Stanikzai, said the Afghan government must pursue its own strategic and political interests in negotiations with the United States, but tense relations between Obama and Karzai were not helping.
"But U.S. officials saying they are considering leaving no troops behind after 2014 is just propaganda to put pressure on (the) Afghan government so Washington can get an outcome it wants in a bilateral security pact," Stanikzai said.
The negotiations on the future U.S. role in Afghanistan that were suspended by Karzai will cover vital basing issues and whether reduced numbers of U.S. troops may be able to continue attacks against al Qaeda and other extremist groups, including in neighboring Pakistan.
The United States also considered keeping a small force in Iraq after the broad troop withdrawal from that country, but talks with Iraqi leaders failed to yield such a deal.
The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan — now around 63,000 — already is set to decline to 34,000 by February. The White House has said the great majority of American forces will be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan since 2001. The United States invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban rulers who had harbored the al Qaeda network responsible for the September 11 attacks on the United States weeks earlier.
(Additional reporting by Rob Taylor, Hamid Shalizi and Mirwais Harooni in Kabul; Editing by Will Dunham)