US President Barack Obama's planned meeting this week with visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai is not meant to set troop levels in Afghanistan beyond 2014, when the US combat role is slated to end, the White House said Tuesday, DPA reported.
Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security advisor, said it was not decided that any US troops would remain after December 2014: "We wouldn't rule out any option."
Rhodes said the deal needs to be finished by November. The meeting with Karzai "is an opportunity for the two presidents to meet during a critical time in the negotiations."
Media reports this week have said the US was considering troop levels from a few thousand up to 20,000 soldiers.
When the US was completing its withdrawal from Iraq before the end of 2011 under a previous agreement, the Obama administration sought to negotiate an agreement allowing a US force of several thousand soldiers to remain to back up Iraqi troops. The talks proved fruitless, and the US relinquished all its based in a complete withdrawal in December 2011.
Obama's two stated goals in Afghanistan for the post-2014 period are: to continue to train and equip the Afghan security forces to security and stabilize the country; and to maintain counterterrorism efforts to deny safe haven to al-Qaeda and other threats.
"Those are the guiding factors for the (bilateral security agreement) negotiations," Rhodes said.
The ongoing talks are meant to produce an agreement to meet those goals, with any remaining US troop levels as a consequence, he said: "It's not so much a question of how many troops we have."
Rhodes pointed out that the presidents are to meet near the midpoint of the transition process from the late 2010 decision for the United States to transition out of a combat role in Afghanistan with a target of the end of 2014.
He said that the US currently has 68,000 soldiers in Afghanistan as the "gradual phased reduction" of US forces continues. NATO forces in the country have been reported at an additional 30,000.
The US and Afghanistan signed a strategic partnership agreement in May, and Washington has designated Afghanistan as an important non-NATO ally.
Karzai is slated to meet Thursday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.