A senior White House official hinted Tuesday that the U.S. could withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan in 2014, leaving the fledgling government of Hamid Karzai without American military support as he takes on a resurgent Taliban.
During a conference call with reporters outlining an upcoming White House meeting between President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai this week, National Security Council spokesman Ben Rhodes said "all options are on the table" for U.S. troop levels in a post-2014 Afghanistan, including the so-called "Zero Option."
"That would be an option we would consider because, again, the president does not view these negotiations as having a goal of keeping troops in Afghanistan. He views these negotiations as in service of the two security missions identified post-2014," he said.
"That's what guides us," Rhodes added. "That's what causes us to look for different potential troop numbers, or not having … troops in the country."
For those who thought a definitive number of U.S. troops that would remain in Afghanistan after the 2014 draw-down might emerge this week, don't hold your breath. The White House said Tuesday talks between the Obama and Karzai were unlikely to yield any specifics on what a post withdrawal presence would look like.
The leader of the Afghan government is in the U.S. for a round of meetings this week, and is scheduled to meet with Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Friday.
Afghanistan experts predicted a decision on the official end to the war could come as soon as the next two weeks. Now, that seems less likely.
"The goal of the negotiations is not to accomplish a number of troops within the country," Rhodes says. "It is to accomplish the two goals of denying a safe haven to al Qaeda and training and equipping Afghan National Security Forces."
Each of these goals will require a certain number of U.S. troops "significantly lower than anywhere we are today"—and for some tasks, perhaps none at all—and will be consistent with Obama's pledge to end the war, he says.
"I would not expect any announcement of any sort about a number of U.S. troops beyond 2014," says Rhodes of Friday's meeting. "In this discussion, they're not going to finalize that decision."
After the two presidents form a "meeting of the minds," they will pass their directives to negotiators who will then determine an agreement for the proposed draw down next year, says Rhodes.
This meeting is a part of the negotiations that will lead to a bilateral security agreement aimed at documenting the U.S. and Afghan plans for outside troops after 2014.
Many of those who will implement this strategy have not yet taken office. It is not clear if former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, Obama's nominee to succeed Panetta, will participate in Friday's meetings. He, along with CIA director nominee John Brennan, will begin congressional confirmation hearings at the end of the month.
Marine Gen. Joe Dunford will take over from Marine Gen. John Allen on Feb. 10 as commander of allied forces in Afghanistan. Experts tell U.S. News it would be very unusual for the commander tasked with implementing a strategy to have no say in formulating it.