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

The meeting Friday at the White House between Obama and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai may lay a foundation for the coming year's negotiations over US role in the country after 2014.

By Staff writer / January 11, 2013

President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai (r.) walks alongside Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (l.) on a guided tour of the Pentagon Memorial, in memory of the victims of the September 11 attack, at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, Thursday. President Obama hosts Karzai at the White House for lunch and talks Friday.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

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Washington

President Obama hosts Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai at the White House for lunch and talks Friday, but the big questions hanging over the visit won’t be answered there. Rather, pressing issues that remain after more than a decade of military involvement in Afghanistan will be resolved by pacts and commitments to be reached over the coming year, as the United States prepares to take its operations against the Taliban and Al Qaeda into a new phase. 

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Still, the meeting may help to lay the groundwork for the coming year's negotiations. The two leaders are expected to discuss the next steps in the transition from US and other international forces to Afghan security forces, as well as the requirements each side has for reaching a long-term bilateral security agreement, or BSA. Mr. Karzai is also likely to have in his pocket a wish list for military hardware.

That means no one is expecting any concrete decisions on Friday. Long-term stationing-of-forces agreements and civilian aid commitments remain to be worked out. And critical regional diplomacy still lies ahead. 

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.

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