No Imminent Decision on Afghan Pullout, White House Says

Pulling all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 is just one option President Barack Obama is considering, and no decision is imminent, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said.

“There’s ample time” to decide on a postwar presence, Carney said yesterday about a report in the New York Times that Obama is looking more seriously at the so-called “zero option” that his team discussed publicly in January, after growing frustrated with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

“We’re in discussions with the Afghan government” about options that also may include a residual force after 2014, Carney told reporters. “This is not a decision that’s imminent.”

Friction between Obama and Karzai increased after a June 27 videoconference that “ended badly,” according to the Times, citing both American and Afghan officials it didn’t identify. The agenda included talks over a long-term security agreement to keep U.S. troops in the country after 2014.

It is “incorrect” to say the videoconference was a “determinative” conversation, Carney said. Obama and Karzai speak periodically and, while “we’ve had disagreements in the past and we’ll have them in the future,” they agree on the need for a stable and democratic future for Afghanistan, he said.

Obama has maintained his position of ending U.S. combat in Afghanistan by the end of next year, though that plan has included keeping in place several thousand troops for support.

Separate Peace

“‘Are you listening, Hamid Karzai?’ is what it’s about,” Michael Corgan, a Boston University international relations professor, said of the New York Times report and the administration’s approach. Obama is “signaling to Karzai that if you don’t get on board with what we’re trying to do, you’re on your own.”

Corgan said Karzai is “erratic, to put it mildly” and the Taliban won’t deal with him. “He’s got to watch his step because he has no other friends” other than the U.S., he said.

According to the Times, Karzai accused the U.S. of trying to negotiate a separate peace plan with the Taliban and their supporters in Pakistan, the newspaper said. Such a deal would leave Afghanistan exposed to its enemies, and Karzai ended the talks with the U.S. over the security agreement, the Times said.

In January, before a Karzai visit to the U.S., Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, said the Obama administration is prepared to pull out of Afghanistan altogether after 2014 if an accord can’t be reached, the “zero option.”

‘Zero Option’

“That would be an option that we would consider, because the president does not view these negotiations as having a goal of keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan,” Rhodes said at the time.

The U.S. and Afghanistan have been in talks that will ultimately determine how many of the 61,000 American troops now in the country will remain after 2014, when Obama has pledged to bring most of them home.

The talks turn on numerous disputes. Karzai is demanding more control over how aid is spent and over the handling of detainees, while the U.S. is insisting on immunity for its troops from local prosecution and progress by Karzai in reducing corruption.

The latest tensions raise questions about what the U.S. and NATO roles in Afghanistan will go beyond 2014 and Afghanistan’s prospects for self-governance. They also reflect Obama’s desire to end the U.S. engagement there, as conflicts in Syria and Egypt compete for his attention.

Train Forces

Pentagon officials have proposed keeping some troops in the country after 2014 to conduct operations against terrorists and to train Afghan forces.

Representative Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, a California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he was assured by administration officials yesterday that the U.S. remains committed to including troops on the ground as part of its post-2014 support.

“News of the ‘zero option’ damages our position in Afghanistan, erodes our standing with our allies, emboldens the Taliban, and demoralizes our troops,” McKeon said in an e-mailed statement.