The U.S. has not ruled out a total troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014, according to official remarks on the eve of an important meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai here.

On a conference call with media prior to Mr. Karzai’s arrival, Deputy National Security Adviser for strategic communication Ben Rhodes responded to a question on whether a “zero option” was on the table saying, “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”.

The U.S.’ top military commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, has indicated his preference to keep a majority of the 66,000 troops in place during the harshest months of battle against the Taliban, during the summer.

Retiring Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has similarly signalled that he anticipated a U.S. counterterrorism force and a contingent to train Afghan forces beyond 2014 would require about 9,000 troops to remain in the country. In recent weeks, the Obama administration officials have hinted that anywhere between 3,000 and 15,000 troops may stay on.

At the heart of the debate on what the U.S. “boot-print” on Afghan soil ought to be in the post-2014 scenario is a troubled relationship between the troops and Afghan locals, particularly in the context of “night raids” by troops that have often resulted in civilian casualties. The U.S. military’s reputation took a further beating after several incidents of perceived abuse including the Koran-burning incident in Bagram and rogue elements within the army killing civilians and defiling the bodies of dead Afghans.

With Mr. Karzai on several occasions speaking publicly about the need to end such actions by U.S. troops and upping the pressure on Washington to cut troop numbers, Mr. Rhodes noted that Mr. Obama viewed such negotiations only in terms of two missions — post-2014 counterterrorism focused on al Qaeda and its affiliates; and training and equipping of the Afghan National Security Forces.

He suggested, however, that even if a total withdrawal was considered appropriate, it would not be in the near future. “They need to know that there’s going to be continued equipping of their security forces, because there’s simply no way that they could do that... on their own as soon as 2015,” he said.

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