US envoy says Obama still mulling Afghan options


WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is still mulling a range of options for the size of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after 2014, a senior U.S. diplomat said Thursday as members of a Senate panel pressed for greater clarity on how many American troops would remain.

James Dobbins, the president's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that as the Afghans build up their country, they won't stand alone.

But Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the committee chairman, said there is "deep-seated anxiety in the region" about what the U.S. troop presence will look like in 18 months. Current plans call for the combat troops that will depart at the end of 2014 to be replaced by a much smaller force that will only train and advise the Afghans. Yet the White House has left open the possibility the U.S. won't leave any forces there after the scheduled departure date.

"Afghans - who may otherwise be interested in building a fledgling democracy - want to know they will not be abandoned by the United States, as the Taliban claims," Menendez said.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the panel's top Republican, said the lack of clarity on future troop levels is "almost embarrassing" and is undermining the U.S. effort in Afghanistan.

"This administration though has tremendous difficulty making decisions," Corker said. "I think the administration has got to quit looking at its navel and make a decision on what the force structure is going to be in Afghanistan."

The two primary goals for the U.S. in Afghanistan are to train, assist, and advise Afghan forces so that they can maintain their own security, and making sure that American forces can continue "to go after remnants of al-Qaida or other affiliates that might threaten our homeland," Dobbins said.

"That is a very limited mission, and it is not one that would require the same kind of footprint, obviously, that we've had over the last 10 years in Afghanistan," he said.

But with respect to actual troop numbers, Obama "is still reviewing a range of options from his national security team and has not made a decision about the size of a U.S. military presence after 2014," Dobbins said.

Peter Lavoy, the acting assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, told the committee the U.S. "is transitioning in Afghanistan, not leaving."

The U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan last month formally handed over control of the country's security to the Afghan army and police. The handover paved the way for the departure of coalition forces — currently numbering about 100,000 troops from 48 countries, including 66,000 Americans.

The White House said Tuesday the decision on troops in Afghanistan won't be imminent. But White House spokesman Jay Carney said the so-called "zero option" is still on the table. The U.S. will have clear objectives for its mission in Afghanistan after the long-planned drawdown, Carney said, adding that those objectives could be met with a residual force or through other means.