WASHINGTON — Battling a potent insurgency and waning support in Washington, Afghan President Hamid Karzai met with President Barack Obama on Friday amid signs that the White House seeks to transform the ground war in Afghanistan into a conflict similar to the current covert war in Pakistan.
The Obama administration has maintained pressure on Islamist militants who operate in Pakistan’s lawless border areas through the use of targeted drone strikes against individuals and small gatherings, vast infusions of military and financial aid to the government in Islamabad, and a mostly hidden U.S. military and CIA presence.
Obama is likely to follow that light-footprint model in Afghanistan after most or all U.S. troops withdraw by the end of 2014, according to officials familiar with current White House thinking. The evolving plans suggest a sharp shift from policy debates last year, when the administration seemed determined to work with Afghan security forces to lock in territorial gains made by U.S. troops.
The final size and capabilities of the U.S. force that stays behind has not been determined, but the developing plans envision that Afghanistan’s armed forces will receive little or no American air and artillery support during combat operations against insurgents, and minimal military or police training except by private contractors, the officials said.
The United States instead intends to conduct a parallel campaign of elite commando raids and drone missile strikes against known or presumed al-Qaida fighters and commanders. Battling the Taliban will no longer be part of the U.S. mission, the officials said.
Ahead of the meetings Friday, senior Obama aides warned privately that the White House could decide to withdraw all 66,000 American troops now in Afghanistan. That’s a clear change from the NATO summit in Chicago in May, when the administration and its allies vowed to continue training and assisting Afghan forces after 2014.
U.S. officials now say Afghan National Army and police forces will be left to fight on their own — supported by billions of dollars annually in aid from Washington and its allies — to stop insurgents from sweeping across the country and potentially reigniting the kind of warlord-driven civil conflict that racked Afghanistan after the Soviet military withdrawal in 1989, ultimately leading to the rise of the Taliban.
U.S. officials acknowledge that the Taliban and other militant groups are likely to claim control of large parts of Afghanistan’s border regions in the south and east, just as armed Islamist groups largely control the northwestern tribal belt of Pakistan.
A U.S. official involved in the debate said the Obama administration was having difficulty persuading allies in Europe and elsewhere to leave troops in Afghanistan after 2014, when the current NATO mission ends.
Asked Thursday if it was realistic for the U.S. and its allies to remove all their troops, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Obama had not made a decision. “We are not going to walk away from the sacrifices that have been made over these last 10 years,” he said.
Karzai, due to leave office next year, is hoping to use the Washington meetings to hold the White House to its promises to provide sustained assistance to help the central government survive.
“Afghanistan will, with the help that you provide, be able to provide security to its people and to protect its borders, so Afghanistan would not ever again be threatened by terrorists,” Karzai told reporters Thursday after a Pentagon ceremony welcoming him to Washington.
But Afghan officials recognize that their leverage with Washington is shrinking, in part because Afghan troops and police have killed scores of U.S. and allied troops in recent months. Some Afghan officials have begun preparing for a U.S. departure by sending overtures to insurgent factions in hopes of negotiating agreements that will keep the government in Kabul afloat.
Administration officials are still debating how many troops will stay in Afghanistan after 2014. Pentagon officials are pushing for between 6,000 and 9,000; White House aides are considering leaving 3,000 or even fewer.
Warnings by White House aides that Obama is considering withdrawing all troops may be a negotiating ploy aimed at driving down Karzai’s demands. The Afghan president’s leverage is clear: He must give permission for U.S. forces to use Afghan bases for special operations and drone warfare.
But Stephen Biddle, a military strategy expert at the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said that with al-Qaida weakened and pressure to cut the defense budget growing, Obama may have decided Afghanistan is no longer as vital as it once was.
Among the issues to be ironed out before 2014 is Washington’s demand for authority to continue detaining al-Qaida fighters and other high-profile suspects on Afghan soil, and for U.S. troops to be granted immunity from possible prosecution in Afghan courts. Iraq’s refusal to grant immunity scuttled similar talks with Washington in 2011, leading to a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from that country.
Karzai will want a say on the nature and scope of the future U.S. mission in Afghanistan. He has publicly complained in about airstrikes that inadvertently kill civilians and night raids on private homes by Navy SEALs and other commando forces.
Karzai will also want to ensure that U.S. forces continue to provide logistic, intelligence, medical evacuation and close-air support to his military and police, aides say.
Maj. Gen. Mohammed Zahir Azimi, an Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman, said equipping Afghan security forces would top Karzai’s agenda in Washington. He said Karzai had met several times with his generals in recent weeks to get a list of their needs.
But U.S. military officers say Afghanistan’s largely uneducated army is unable to operate and maintain the advanced equipment they are seeking, including sophisticated aircraft, artillery and tanks, as well as high-tech surveillance systems.
Australian Brig. Adam Findlay, deputy operations and plans officer for the international force in Afghanistan, said Afghan officials were requesting “high-end war-fighting” equipment that the NATO command does not consider essential for a counterinsurgency fight.
“We don’t know why they’re asking for those particular high-end pieces of equipment, and what we have to have is a discussion,” he said.
Omar Sharifi, a Kabul-based analyst with the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies, said Karzai was under pressure to ensure that military and economic assistance didn’t dry up when U.S. troops went home.
“The memories of the 1990s still haunt many people, and nobody wants to go back,” Sharifi said. “The flow of supplies and support must continue in Afghanistan. I think (Karzai) sees that … as his most important legacy.”
Cloud reported from Washington and Zavis from Kabul. Special correspondent Hashmat Baktash in Kabul contributed to this report.