"We've made a lot of progress against al-Qaeda, but the job is not done," Doug Lute, the top White House military adviser on Afghanistan, told reporters this week. "The Afghan National Security Forces are a work in progress."
The United States has 66,000 troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of about 100,000 as recently as 2010. Just how many troops might remain is at the heart of widespread discussion in Washington, where Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai meets with Obama on Friday.
As initially in Iraq, U.S. officials are considering keeping between 3,000 and 15,000 American troops in Afghanistan after 2014. That would not happen, however, if U.S. troops are denied legal immunity from prosecution in Afghanistan - which ultimately is what ended the same negotiations in Iraq.
"We've seen this movie so many times," said Sen. John McCain, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who remains troubled over the Iraq withdrawal. In an interview Wednesday, he urged the White House to keep more than a few thousand troops in Afghanistan "to make a difference and not just become targets for attacks by a resurgent Taliban."
Karzai met Wednesday with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and three members of the Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees. Asked what number of U.S. forces he would like to see in the country, Karzai declined to answer and joked that he was told by the "organizer of the Senate" to keep quiet.
"I hope we get back to Afghanistan with what the Afghans expect of me to take back," Karzai told reporters.
A Pentagon report to Congress in December concluded that only one of 23 Afghan National Army battalions was judged to be capable of operating in the field on its own - and even then needed international security advisers.
Afghanistan was dubbed "Obama's war" after the president ordered a troop surge in 2009 to chase out extremist militants and eliminate their ability to return. By contrast, Obama as a candidate for president had called Iraq a "dumb war" and made ending it a campaign pledge.