WASHINGTON — How to successfully end an unpopular war, and what to do next, will dominate the agenda this week here as Afghan President Hamid Karzai meets with top U.S. leaders.

Karzai was scheduled to meet with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday , and will conclude his visit Friday in high-stakes White House talks with U.S. President Barack Obama and members of his Cabinet.

The results of the meetings could be critical for the United States in achieving its two overriding goals in the country where it has been fighting more than 11 years — preventing an al-Qaida resurgence, and leaving Afghanistan’s military and government able to endure after the NATO combat mission ends in December 2014.

“We are at some crucial decision points for the United States, both in terms of the size and shape of a long-term post-2014 presence, if any, and also what kind of glide slope we’ll be on in Afghanistan … before 2014,” said retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, a former commanding general in Afghanistan and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank with close ties to the Obama administration.

Among the issues that will be on the table:

Drawdown: More than 66,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, a number that is likely to be cut dramatically this year – but how deeply and when are questions that could be answered soon, analysts said. White House advisers on Tuesday said Obama was unlikely to announce troop level decisions during the Karzai visit.

NATO troops are steadily transferring security responsibility to Afghan troops, but the readiness of the still-shaky Afghans to stand on their own remains in doubt. Karzai, meanwhile, has continued to demand that NATO commanders transfer authority to Afghans and get foreign troops out of villages.

Obama said last year he would continue steadily drawing down troops after the last of the surge forces exited the country in September. U.S. troop numbers have since hit a plateau, but Obama should bow to public and congressional wishes and begin steady reductions soon, said Chris Preble, defense analyst at the Cato Institute, a libertarian Washington think tank.

The United States needs to cut war spending and focus on the economy and other priorities at home, he said.

“The public believes the war is coming to an end because the president has said the war is coming to an end,” Preble said. “If it doesn’t seem to be going in that direction, then there will be a political price to pay.”

There’s little question big cuts in U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan are coming in 2013, said Ahmad Majidyar, an expert on Afghanistan for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.

“The most likely course is that the administration will cut the number this year by at least 20,000 to 30,000,” he said.

But that will hamstring U.S. ability to continue training Afghan forces and hold the Taliban at bay as the Afghans assume security responsibility nationwide, Majidyar said.

Post-2014 force: With the war set to officially end next year on Dec. 31, the question of how many U.S. troops should remain afterward, and what the mission should be, will be a key issue in talks with Karzai.

Guessing post-2014 troop presence has become a Washington parlor game as a flurry of numbers have leaked – from a few thousand to 20,000 or more – reportedly based on options that Allen presented to the Pentagon in recent months.

The Obama administration has yet to announce a plan, but based on its decisions, several experts said they expect the midline number of 10,000 post-2014 troops.

That would be too few, said Lisa Curtis, an analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. Karzai wants assurance that the United States is willing to continue supporting the Afghan military and government.

“I think 10,000 is risky,” she said. “We should be more prudent and focus on maintaining the security gains we have made … and we should show the Afghans we are willing to support them with at least 20,000 troops.”

Troop numbers alone aren’t a measure of how much the United States is willing to invest, said Anthony Cordesman, a foreign policy expert for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The issue is never whether there are 6,000 men and women or 30,000,” he wrote in an article posted on the CSIS website last week. “The issue is what they are deployed to do, what roles and missions they perform, what combat role they will play if any, how well funded and equipped they are, and how they support an overall strategy, plan and effort to achieve a real strategic result.”

The United States has shown little determination to make non-military investments necessary for success in Afghanistan, Cordesman said.

Status of forces: Some of the most crucial discussions that week will take place over a status of forces agreement, or SOFA, a document that would establish the legal framework for a continued U.S. presence after 2014.

The United States maintains SOFAs with countries where its forces are stationed, and the Pentagon confirmed last week that preliminary negotiations had begun.

The United States will require its troops to have immunity from local prosecution – a point Karzai has cast doubt on. Analysts say Karzai could try to use the question of immunity as leverage to extract other concessions – whether funding, weapons systems or control over operations – from the United States.

A variety of complications culminating in an immunity showdown prevented the United States from establishing a SOFA with Iraq as that war came to a close.

“That was the precipitating factor for us having zero military presence in Iraq, outside the embassy, after 2011,” Barno said. “Immunity from prosecution for troops is something we will require.”

Karzai appears to believe the United States is determined to keep troops in the country, and that he has leverage because of it – but that may not be the case, Barno said.

On Tuesday, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, confirmed that leaving no troops in the country is an option that Obama is willing to contemplate.

“The U.S. does not have an inherent objective of X number of troops in Afghanistan,” he said. “We have an objective of making sure there’s no safe haven for al-Qaida in Afghanistan, and making sure the Afghan government has a security force that is sufficient to assure the stability” of the country.

Email: Carrollc@stripes.osd.milTwitter: @ChrisCarroll_

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