In a conference call this week with reporters to preview Karzai's visit, Lute and deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the White House would consider withdrawing all American forces from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 — again following the Iraq model — if they are no longer needed or are not given legal immunities. White House officials also are quick to point to the costs of deploying forces — at least an estimated $1 million per soldier each year in Afghanistan — against competing security concerns elsewhere in the world.
However, that may be a White House negotiating gambit to spook Karzai, who has irritated Washington by accusing U.S. troops of being "occupiers" in Afghanistan when American-led offensives have resulted in civilian deaths. But Karzai also has said he wants the U.S. to continue training and equipping Afghanistan's army and air force, and help protect its people and regional interests.
At the same time, Karzai wants U.S. forces to stay out of urban areas and villages — raising the question of what mission troops would undertake if they remain. Similarly, American troops stopped securing Iraqi cities in 2009, and morphed into a training-only mission in 2010. By 2011, most soldiers rarely left their secured bases and openly questioned why they were there. Just under 200 active-duty troops are currently in Baghdad, all with diplomatic immunity, to help the U.S. Embassy deliver weapons and equipment to Iraqi security forces.
Republican Rep. Mac Thornberry, the vice chair of the House Armed Service Committee, said the White House might as well withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan next year if it decides to strap the military's mission by only keeping a few thousand there.
"It's nearly worse to leave with too small a presence that endangers our people, than to get everybody out," Thornberry said Wednesday. "If people know you're not serious about staying there, and standing up for them, then they've got to cut deals because the bad guys are staying.
"I worry about the Iraq precedent," he said, "because we left too soon and we are feeling some of the consequences, and I am afraid we'll feel more."
Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Donna Cassata in Washington and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.
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