U.S. Troop Issue Complicates Diplomacy With Afghanistan

President Obama is considering pulling all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the end of next year, but the White House says no decision is imminent. Administration officials say the U.S. and Afghanistan are still talking about whether the U.S. will keep some residual force in Afghanistan after 2014.

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What America thinks would seem to matter in Afghanistan. After all, American troops are still active, mostly training security forces there, that soon enough will be protecting Afghanistan. How long the U.S. stays will make a big difference in how stable that country will be. Still, among the options President Obama is considering, is pulling all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the end of next year when the NATO mission ends. It's known as the Zero Option.

NPR's Michele Kelemen has this report on how likely that is.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The zero option has long been on the table for President Obama, his spokesman says, but Jay Carney is cautioning reporters not to expect any quick decisions on that.

JAY CARNEY: We are on a downward slope. We are continuing to draw down our forces. We are roughly at 60,000, I believe. And the president publicly stated that he's committed to, you know, bringing that troop level down even further, come early 2014.

KELEMEN: Carney says the U.S. is still talking with Afghanistan's government about the potential for a residual force to pursue al-Qaida remnants and to train Afghan forces. He's downplaying suggestions that the U.S. is leaning towards the zero option because of tensions between Obama and Afghan president Hamid Karzai.

CARNEY: Now, we've had disagreements in the past and we'll have them in the future. There's no question. But the core agreement here is on a future in Afghanistan that is stable, and democratic and secure.

KELEMEN: But the signal the U.S. is sending by talking about the zero option feeds into Karzai's narrative, says Vali Nasr, dean of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

VALI NASR: Karzai all along has assumed that this is what we were going to do anyways. And that, in part, is the reason why we have had difficulty in getting his trust and getting him to fully support our strategy.

KELEMEN: Nasr, who worked on Afghanistan at the state department, says he's confident some still in the administration are making the case he would to the White House right now.

NASR: I would caution against the rapid withdrawal, largely because I think Afghanistan is very vulnerable to a collapse. The military there is not strong enough. State institutions are very weak. The Taliban still have much of their power intact and the region is very worried about Afghanistan.

KELEMEN: Nasr describes the White House approach to Afghanistan as meandering. Gayle Lemmon of the Council on Foreign Relations describes the shifting U.S. policy this way.

GAYLE LEMMON: Afghanistan was the war we must win and now it's the war we just have to get out of.

KELEMEN: She'd like to see the U.S. stay engaged in Afghanistan, not just militarily, but also diplomatically. And while the Obama administration says it will remain committed to the country, Lemmon says Afghans are not convinced.

LEMMON: And I think the Americans really do need to give the sense that this is not a drop dead date, 2014. This is not the date where all American interests in Afghanistan end. And I don't think, so far, we have done an excellent job convincing folks on the ground that we mean that.

KELEMEN: The U.S. has also not done a good job promoting peace talks. Vali Nasr says the Taliban have no reason to negotiate because they believe they can wait out the U.S.

NASR: A prudent strategy would have been one that would have connected very closely our departure with political gains and diplomatic gains at the negotiating table that would have given a reason for the Taliban to want to compromise.

KELEMEN: The State Department says the Taliban are temporarily closing their office in Qatar, which the group set up just a month ago to facilitate peace talks. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki is brushing it off as a bump in the road, blaming it on the dispute over the flag the Taliban raised at their Qatar office and how they tried to identify themselves as a government in exile.

JEN PSAKI: We believe that misunderstandings that arose in the context of the opening should not stand in the way of moving forward. Unreconciliation of the Taliban wishes to do so and will continue to support and reiterate our call for that process to move forward.

KELEMEN: She's also trying to reassure Afghans that the U.S. has learned from past mistakes and won't abandon Afghanistan. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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