WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is considering pulling out all its troops from Afghanistan next year, U.S. officials said, amid tension between the President Barack Obama's administration and Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government.
Obama is committed to wrapping up U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, but the United States has been talking with officials in Afghanistan about keeping a small residual force there of perhaps 8,000 troops.
U.S. officials did not deny a report that Obama has become increasingly frustrated by his dealings with Karzai. Their relationship fell to new depths after last month's U.S. move to open peace talks with the Taliban, which led Karzai to suspend talks on a security pact between the two allies.
A June 27 video conference between Obama and Karzai aimed at lowering tensions ended poorly, the New York Times reported, citing U.S. and Afghan officials with knowledge of the conversation.
Senior Afghan figures close to Karzai were skeptical that Washington would consider a complete withdrawal.
"Both sides understand how to pressure each other. But both the U.S. and Afghanistan fully understand the need for foreign troops, especially U.S. ones, to stay beyond 2014 and that it is vital for security here and in the wider region," a top palace official told Reuters on Tuesday on condition of anonymity.
"We don't think the U.S. will compromise on that, because past experience of abandoning Afghanistan was that the country descended into chaos," the official said, recalling the bitter civil war that raged after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal and subsequent toppling of the Najibullah government.
Much of Kabul was gutted in the ensuing conflict between rival warlords until the Taliban seized control of the country in 1996 and introduced their austere Islamic regime.
The Times reported that Karzai had accused the United States of trying to forge a separate peace with the Taliban and its Pakistani supporters in an arrangement that would expose Karzai's government to its enemies.
Since the video conference, a full military pullout from Afghanistan like the one from Iraq had been transformed from a "worst-case scenario" to an option "under serious consideration in Washington and Kabul", the Times reported.
U.S. officials, asked about the report, pointed reporters to a comment by Ben Rhodes, the deputy White House national security adviser, who said in January that the "zero option" of leaving no troops behind is "an option that we would consider". The comment still stands, officials said.
Asked about the Times report, one senior Obama administration official said: "All options remain on the table but a decision is far from made."
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Zahir Azimi also said there had been no decisions on the pace and scale of a U.S. withdrawal, and similar scenarios had circulated in the past.
A former Karzai political adviser, Nasrullah Stanikzai, said the Afghan government must pursue its own strategic and political interests in negotiations with the United States, but tense relations between Obama and Karzai were not helping.
"But U.S. officials saying they are considering leaving no troops behind after 2014 is just propaganda to put pressure on Afghan government so Washington can get an outcome it wants in a bilateral security pact," Stanikzai said.
The negotiations on a U.S. role in Afghanistan, suspended by the mercurial Karzai in June, will cover vital basing issues and whether reduced numbers of U.S. troops may be able to continue attacks against al Qaeda and other extremist groups, including in neighboring Pakistan.
The United States also considered keeping a small force in Iraq after the broad troop withdrawal from that country, but talks with Iraqi leaders failed to yield such a deal.
"There's always been a zero option, but it was not seen as the main option," the Times quoted a senior Western official in Kabul as saying. "It is now becoming one of them, and if you listen to some people in Washington, it is maybe now being seen as a realistic path."
More than a dozen American troops were killed in Afghanistan last month.
The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan — now around 63,000 — already is set to decline to 34,000 by February, the Times noted. The White House has said the great majority of American forces would be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan since 2001. The United States invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban who had harbored the al Qaeda network responsible for the September 11 attacks on the United States weeks earlier.
(Reporting by Will Dunham, Phil Stewart and Steve Holland in WASHINGTON, and Rob Taylor, Hamid Shalizi and Mirwais Harooni in KABUL; Editing by Nick Macfie)