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Specter of Benghazi attack drives U.S.-Afghanistan talks

| Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013, 7:54 p.m.
AFP/Getty Images
Afghan President Hamid Karzai (L) holds a meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the State Department in Washington, DC, on January 10, 2013. US sought to assure Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Thursday that it would remain committed to his country even as US officials weigh a major withdrawal of American forces. AFP PHOTO/Jewel SamadJEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The attacks on a U.S. missions in Libya last year has become a factor driving the White House decision on how large a force to leave in Afghanistan after 2014 — and a specter hanging over talks between the Afghan president and the United States.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has publicly called for a near-total drawdown of U.S. forces, with a surge of American and international aid to make up for their exit.

After losing a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, U.S. officials insist they need enough troops to protect their diplomats, and the legal authority to target those who might come after them, a senior official said.

The State Department wants five diplomatic posts in Afghanistan, but federal planners are weighing every potential post against how many troops would be needed to guard it and, if need be, get personnel out, said one current and one former U.S. government official. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the White House deliberations publicly.

The Obama administration does not want to risk another Benghazi, the senior official said, where diplomatic posts are only lightly guarded by American contractors and local forces and the host country can deny the United States the right to send in troops.

The Libyans denied special ops teams entry to hunt al-Qaida-linked militants suspected in the killings of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans on Sept. 11, 2012.

The same security concerns apply to U.S. drone bases used to launch attacks against al-Qaida targets next door in Pakistan.

“If the mission is to defeat al-Qaida, then you need a base to operate from, and Afghanistan is the only place to do that,” said former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, who advised the Obama administration on its Afghan war strategy. “Where Benghazi comes in is: Do we want to rely on Afghan security or a contractor or on U.S. Marines to protect a drone base?”

Pentagon calculations call for roughly three to five troops to guard each U.S. civilian in a conflict zone like Afghanistan. Without sufficient numbers of troops, the United States will have to curtail its diplomatic mission, the senior government official said, which could spell reduced aid and support to Afghanistan.

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