David Barno, a retired Army three-star general and former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, wrote earlier this week that vigorous debate has been under way inside the administration on a "minimalist approach" for post-2014 Afghanistan.
In an opinion piece for ForeignPolicy.com on Monday, Barno said the "zero option" was less than optimal but "not necessarily an untenable one." Without what he called the stabilizing influence of U.S. troops, Barno cautioned that Afghanistan could "slip back into chaos."
Barno said the Afghan-Pakistan border area where numbers of Islamic extremists are in hiding could become the scene of a prolonged "intelligence war" after 2014, with the U.S. and its Afghan and Pakistan partners sharing intelligence.
"Given its vital importance, this undertaking will endure — regardless of the size of the residual U.S. military presence," he wrote.
Rhodes said Obama is focused on two main outcomes in Afghanistan: ensuring that the country does not revert to being the al-Qaida haven it was prior to Sept. 11, 2001, and getting the government to the point where it can defend itself.
"That's what guides us, and that's what causes us to look for different potential troop numbers — or not having potential troops in the country," Rhodes said.
He predicted that Obama and Karzai would come to no concrete conclusions on international military missions in Afghanistan beyond 2014, and he said it likely would be months before Obama decides how many U.S. troops — if any — he wants to keep there.
Rhodes said Obama remains committed to further reducing the U.S. military presence this year, although the pace of that withdrawal will not be decided for a few months.