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US plays tough with Karzai on Afghan troops

US officials plan a mix of hardball negotiating and flattery during a visit by Afghan President Hamid Karzai as President Barack Obama decides how deeply to cut forces in America's longest war.

Karzai will be Obama's first foreign visitor of 2013 with a White House meeting on Friday and State Department dinner on Thursday. The Afghan leader was scheduled to meet senators from both parties late Wednesday.

The talks come as the freshly re-elected Obama charts out plans to pull most of the 68,000 US troops out of Afghanistan. The United States and its allies have already agreed to withdraw combat troops by the end of 2014 but questions remain on a US training and security role after that.

Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, told reporters Tuesday that Obama sought to prevent Al-Qaeda's return to Afghanistan but would not rule out any ideas including the so-called zero option -- leaving no US troops at all.

Afghanistan watchers in Washington largely saw the hints as a strategy aimed at Karzai, who has had a tumultuous relationship with the Obama administration and is seen as wanting US troops to stay as long as possible.

James Dobbins, a former US diplomat involved in the establishment of Karzai's government in 2001, called the airing of the zero option "a tactical move designed to indicate to Karzai that he has less leverage in this negotiation than he might otherwise."

Dobbins, who considered a Taliban return to power in post-2014 Afghanistan to be possible but unlikely, said that troop levels would be determined by how much the United States was willing to spend after more than 11 years of war.

"My view is it's a straight cost/risk ratio. The more you're prepared to pay, the lower your risk; the higher your risk tolerance, the less you can get away with," Dobbins, now an expert at the Rand Corp., said at the Atlantic Council think tank.

News reports have said that some administration officials favor as few as several thousand troops in Afghanistan. Obama's nominees as his next secretary of state and defense secretary, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, are both seen as supportive of a wide-scale military drawdown.

Marvin Weinbaum of the Middle East Institute said he expected Karzai to press hardest during the White House meetings over what equipment, including air power, the United States would leave or provide Afghan forces.

"He doesn't want the US to pull out completely and he doesn't think the US wants to pull out completely. So that's the meeting point, but he wants to use that as leverage to extract as much as possible," Weinbaum said of Karzai.

Weinbaum said the visit was also aimed at preserving a friendly atmosphere with Karzai, who "is so thin-skinned, if you look at him the wrong way, he thinks you're plotting his demise."

"A lot of these meetings are just to try to keep the chemistry from getting too ugly," said Weinbaum, who believed the plentiful events for Karzai "improve the chances that maybe you can convince him that he's loved."

Tensions rose between the United States and Afghanistan after Karzai won presidential elections in 2009 despite widespread charges of irregularities.

The Obama administration has also pressed Karzai to curb corruption, considered by some US officials to be a major impediment to increasing the government's legitimacy in Afghan eyes.

Opinion polls for several years have shown that the US public is tired of the human and financial cost of the Afghanistan war, initially launched after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. US forces killed Osama bin Laden, the attack's mastermind, in Pakistan in 2011.

But neoconservative analysts Fred and Kimberly Kagan, writing in The Wall Street Journal, said that leaving only a tiny US military presence would impede operations against Al-Qaeda and risk a renewal of ethnic civil war.

"Those who say that Afghanistan can't get any worse than it is today lack both imagination and any knowledge of the country's recent history," they wrote.

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