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As Obama meets Karzai, future troop level in Afghanistan isn't only big issue

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Among those big issues that form the backdrop for Friday’s talks:

  • What will it take to continue to deny “safe haven” in Afghanistan to an Al Qaeda that, although diminished, retains its leadership structure across the border in Pakistan?
  • What kind of support will the Afghan National Security Forces need over the long term to keep from crumbling – something that could eventually lead to a return to civil war?
  • Will it be possible to maintain and even advance the gains in education, development, and women’s and girls’ rights made during 11 years of intense US and international involvement, as the US civilian commitment mirrors the US military drawdown?

The White House insists that “denying Al Qaeda safe haven” is one of Mr. Obama’s two top objectives for long-term US involvement in Afghanistan – the other being to “train and equip” an Afghan military capable of maintaining Afghan sovereignty after NATO departs in 2014. But some critics of administration plans, citing some of the proposals said to be on the table, say the US risks seeing large swaths of the country become once again susceptible to Al Qaeda control.

Some administration officials say Obama is unlikely to keep more than 6,000 troops in the country long-term, while others suggest he is even giving thought to a zero-troops option that would presumably envision carrying out counterterrorism efforts through drones and other remote means.

Speaking with reporters this week, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, said keeping no troops in Afghanistan post-2014 “would be an option we would consider.” The goal of concluding a BSA with the Afghan government, he reminded reporters, “is not to keep troops” in the country but to do what's necessary to achieve the two “missions” of continuing to train Afghan forces and to deny Al Qaeda safe havens.

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