The framework for US involvement in Afghanistan after international forces withdraw in 2014 will be the key issues to be discussed on Friday's meeting between the US President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the White House said.
"This is not a visit during which President Obama will be making decisions about US troop levels in the immediate future or beyond 2014. It's a visit where the two leaders will be able to consult about those issues, and then in the coming months, President Obama will be able to make those decisions in consultation with his national security team," deputy national security adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes told reporters during a conference call.
"On the security side, they'll be discussing the 2013 transition and the BSA (bilateral security agreement). They'll also be discussing the political and economic transition that's underway, as well as reconciliation and regional stability," he said.
Rhodes said the Karzai visit comes at a critical moment for the two Presidents to take stock on where they are in the transition and then to provide guidance going forward on a host of issues.
"In 2013, we will be continuing our transition to Afghan security lead, and we, of course, have set in Chicago the objective of having a milestone in 2013 where the Afghans are fully in the lead for security responsibility in the country on the way to the Afghans having full responsibility by the end of 2014, so they'll be discussing the 2013 transition," he said.
"Of course, as it relates to US troops, we completed the full drawdown of our surge in September, bringing us back down to 68,000, the pre-West Point troop levels for the United States. As we look to 2013, reductions in US troops will continue, but they will be guided by the transition that the two leaders agree upon," he noted.
"Similarly, just as we'll be discussing the 2013 transition, the two leaders will be discussing any potential support for Afghanistan from the United States beyond 2014. And we are currently in discussions about a bilateral security agreement between the United States and Afghanistan," he said, adding that the nature of US support for Afghanistan beyond 2014 will be focused on two precise missions, training and equipping of Afghan security forces and continued efforts on the counterterrorism front against al-Qaeda and their affiliates.
Rhodes said no decision has been taken on the number of troops, but indicated that the number of troops would be far less than what it is now.
"I know there's a lot of focus on potential numbers. The fact is, what we are most interested in is having an enduring partnership with Afghanistan. We are not going to be partnering with Afghan security forces in securing Afghanistan after 2014. Our combat mission will be over," he asserted.
"We do, however, want to continue to ensure that Afghan national security forces are trained and equipped appropriately, and there is significant resources that have been committed to that goal, not just in the United States, but from NATO, as well. And we do want to make sure that we can continue to deny al-Qaeda a safe haven within Afghanistan after 2014," Rhodes said.
"And so the way the President referred to this is not aiming to keep a certain number of troops within Afghanistan. The objective of the bilateral security agreement negotiations is not to accomplish a number of US troops in the country. It is to accomplish the two goals of denying a safe haven to al-Qaeda and training and equipping Afghan national security forces. There are, of course, many different ways of accomplishing those objectives, some of which might involve US troops, some of which might not," he said.
"It is true that it (number of US troops in Afghanistan post 2014) would certainly be significantly lower than anywhere that we are today, in terms of the numbers of US troops, and in a range, again, that is consistent with the President's commitment to end the war and to end US responsibility for security of Afghanistan," he said.
"The President is not going in this discussion; they're not going to finalize that decision. I think they want to reach a common understanding of how we can achieve those objectives and achieve President Karzai's objective that we share of making sure that Afghans have full sovereignty within their country," the official said.
"Then after the two Presidents have had a meeting of the minds on those issues here in Washington, negotiators will be able to take that guidance and try to finalize an agreement. So I would not expect an announcement of any sort about a number of US troops beyond 2014, but rather this is an opportunity for the two presidents to meet at a critical time in the negotiations and then to provide that critical guidance to negotiators," Rhodes said.