President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan arrived at the Pentagon today for the first in a series of discussions with senior American leaders about the future of the U.S. military role in Afghanistan after American combat troops leave the country at the end of 2014.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta greeted Karzai with all the pomp and circumstance accorded a head of state - a 21-gun salute, and marching bands and honor guards from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine and Coast Guard.
Topping the agenda for Karzai's meetings in Washington is a discussion over the effort to reach a security agreement between the two countries. The White House is currently considering the number of troops to be kept, with the leading options numbering between 3,000 and 9,000 forces, although earlier this week the possibility that no troops may be left behind was raised.
At the Pentagon, Karzai and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met for an hour; Panetta later described the meeting as touching on the U. S.'s "enduring commitment" to Afghanistan.
Later in the day, at a news conference with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Panetta said his meeting with Karzai helped "lay the groundwork" for Karzai's meeting with President Obama on Friday.
Neither Panetta nor Dempsey would speculate on the options, particularly the zero-troop option, though Dempsey acknowledged, "We've said from the start no option is off the table."
Karzai's relationship with the United States has at times been a rocky one as he has sometimes made critical statements about the allied troop presence in his country. U.S. officials believe he has made those comments out of political expediency to improve his standing with Afghans and show his independence.
Coalition forces have been transitioning security to Afghan forces over the past year, so that by now they are in the lead for security in areas where 76 percent of the Afghan population lives.
Despite that, most Afghan military units still remain unable to work independently of the logistical and combat support provided by the U.S. and its allies. The U.S. currently has 66,000 troops, with 34,000 troops from other NATO countries, serving alongside Afghanistan's 352,000 security forces.
American troops continue to partner with Afghan troops in preparation for withdrawal, though the rapid spike in insider attacks last year has created new challenges.
It is against this backdrop that today Karzai assured Panetta that with the U.S. and NATO assistance provided the past decade to Afghanistan that it "will be able to provide security its people and to protect its borders so Afghanistan will not ever be threatened by terrorists from across our borders."
Thursday evening Karzai met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for talks that would also focus on American security commitments after 2014. After their meeting they were joined by Panetta for a working dinner.