The Obama administration does not rule out a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan after 2014, the White House said on Tuesday, just days before President Barack Obama is due to meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The comments by U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes were the first signal that, despite initial recommendations by the top military commander in Afghanistan to keep as many as 15,000 troops in the country, the final decision may be to remove everyone, as happened in Iraq in 2011.
Asked about consideration of a so-called zero-option once the NATO combat mission ends at the end of 2014, Rhodes said: "That would be an option that we would consider."
"Because again, the president does not view these negotiations as having a goal of keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan," he added, saying the objective was to ensure the training and equipping of Afghan forces and combating al Qaeda.
Rhodes, lowering expectations of any breakthrough in the talks with Karzai at the White House on Friday, said it would be months before a final decision is made on troop levels.
In Iraq, Obama decided to pull out all U.S. forces after failing in negotiations with the Iraqi government to secure immunity for any U.S. troops who would remain behind.
The Obama administration is also insisting on immunity for any U.S. troops that remain in Afghanistan, and that unsettled question will figure in this week's talks between Obama and Karzai and their aides.
Jeffrey Dressler, an Afghanistan expert at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War who favors keeping a larger presence in Afghanistan, questioned what battlefield conditions would allow for a complete U.S. pullout.
"I can't tell that they're doing that as a negotiating position ... or if it is a no-kidding option," Dressler said. "If you ask me, I don't see how zero troops is in the national security interest of the United States."
U.S. officials have said privately that the White House had asked for options to be developed for keeping between 3,000 and 9,000 troops in the country, a lower range than was put forward initially by General John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan.
Allen suggested keeping between 6,000 and 15,000 troops in Afghanistan.