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US 'fully committed' in Afghanistan, Panetta says. But no troops after 2014?

Afghan President Hamid Karzai meets with President Obama Friday in the wake of a 'zero option' being floated for US troops. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Mr. Karzai met at the Pentagon Thursday.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / January 10, 2013

Afghan President Hamid Karzai sits with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for their meeting at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, Thursday.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

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Washington

At various stages of America’s wars in the past decade, there are inevitable discussions surrounding what US troop levels are best for the next stage of conflict.

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These deliberations tend to involve three choices provided by senior US military officials: a high number, a low number, and one right in the middle that the US military brass believes is optimal – or at least their best bet given the political climate at the time.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai will meet with President Obama Friday in the wake of a new twist: The Obama administration leaked the news that it is considering a “zero option” as well.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta emphasized Thursday after an hour-long one-on-one meeting with Mr. Karzai at the Pentagon that the United States is “fully committed to finishing the job” in Afghanistan.

Senior defense officials sidestepped the question, however, of whether zero troops is a realistic option in post-2014 Afghanistan. 

“We’ve said from the start that no option is entirely off the table,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a Pentagon briefing Thursday.

Senior US officials insist, too, they are serious about the possibility of pulling nearly all US troops out of Afghanistan after US combat operations end, which is slated to happen at the end of 2014.

“There are, of course, many different ways of accomplishing those objectives, some of which might involve US troops, some of which might not,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communication, told reporters in a conference call Tuesday.

Gen. John Allen, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, has submitted military options that include three plans for troop levels at 6,000, 10,000, and 20,000.

By putting a “zero option” on the table in advance of Karzai’s visit, however, the Obama administration is injecting a lower figure in the military’s “Goldilocks” approach. This, in turn, changes the terms of the debate, since any figure higher than zero seems like a compromise. 

“I suspect there’s probably some gamesmanship involved,” says Jeffrey Dressler, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank.

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