Afghan President Hamid Karzai has publicly called for a near-total drawdown of U.S. forces, with a surge of U.S. and international aid to make up for their exit.
But after losing a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, U.S. officials insist they need enough troops to protect their diplomats, and the legal authority to target those who might come after them, a senior U.S. official said.
The State Department wants five diplomatic posts in Afghanistan, but U.S. planners are weighing every potential post against how many troops would be needed to guard it and, if need be, get personnel out, said one current and one former U.S. official. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the White House deliberations publicly.
The administration does not want to risk another Benghazi situation, the senior official said, where diplomatic posts are only lightly guarded by U.S. contractors and local forces and the host country can deny the U.S. the right to send in troops. The Libyans denied U.S. special operations teams entry to hunt al-Qaida-linked militants suspected in the killings of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans on Sept. 11.
The same security concerns also apply to U.S. drone bases used to launch attacks against al-Qaida targets next door in Pakistan.
"If the mission is to defeat al-Qaida, then you need a base to operate from and Afghanistan is the only place to do that," said former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, who advised the Obama White House on its Afghan war strategy. "Where Benghazi comes in is, Do we want to rely on Afghan security, or a contractor, or on U.S. Marines to protect a drone base?"
Pentagon calculations call for roughly three to five troops to guard each U.S. civilian in a conflict zone like Afghanistan. Without sufficient numbers of troops, the U.S. will have to curtail its diplomatic mission, the senior U.S. official said, which could spell reduced aid and support to Afghanistan without the U.S. manpower to manage the programs.
White House officials say President Barack Obama will explain that quid pro quo when he meets with Karzai at the White House on Friday, the culmination of a series of meetings with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other U.S. officials and lawmakers this week in Washington.
Karzai has publicly called for U.S. troops to return to their bases, saying Afghan troops could take over this year, but he has also asked for the U.S. to help him build his own army and air force.
Only after Obama and Karzai reach a meeting of the minds on what the Afghans will allow the U.S. to do after 2014 can Obama decide whether to leave U.S. personnel in Afghanistan after 2014 — and, if so, how many and what they role they'll play, said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser for the White House.
There are 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Those troops are already turning over territory or handing off many combat missions to Afghan security forces, with a goal of having Afghans leading all combat missions by the end of 2013.
White House officials insist that U.S. troops would not be in combat after 2014, though a recent Pentagon report judged only one Afghan army brigade able to operate independently — and even then, with the help of a NATO military adviser.
Afghanistan war chief Gen. John Allen has proposed a post-2014 troop presence ranging from 3,000 to 20,000, with a sliding scale of what missions those troops could carry out. The lower figure is only enough for a counterterrorist force plus security for a small number of diplomatic and intelligence outposts. The higher end allows U.S. troops to continue to take a leading role in training Afghan forces and provide them some backup like logistics support, as well as protecting a larger U.S. diplomatic and intelligence presence.
"There are ways to avoid this stark choice between 20,000 and 6,000, because that 6,000 number may not include some of the special operations teams that can rotate in and out," said the Brookings Institution's Michael O'Hanlon. "If you had a crisis after 2014, you could rotate in special forces teams at the request of the Afghan president. There'd still be flexibility."
The U.S., Afghanistan and NATO agreed on three major post-2014 missions at their summit in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2010: training Afghan troops, hunting al-Qaida and ramping up diplomatic support to the Afghan government.
The senior U.S. official and one former official said the White House would like NATO to take over training Afghans, by creating its own independent command that the U.S. would contribute troops to, with its own separate security agreement with Afghanistan.
Under this scenario, the counterterrorism mission would remain U.S.-run, staffed by a few thousand U.S. special operators with possible contributions from other NATO nations, the senior official said. Those troops would focus on dismantling al-Qaida, working together with Afghan forces.
Rhodes said the post-2014 numbers, even once announced sometime later this year, could later shift, depending on progress against al-Qaida, or the progress in maturing Afghan security forces.
Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.