By Phil Stewart and Lesley Wroughton
WASHINGTON, July 11 (Reuters) - The United States is unlikely to be forced into a "zero option" of withdrawing all troops from Afghanistan after 2014, but Afghan President Hamid Karzai must understand that a bilateral security pact is necessary for them to stay, U.S. officials said.
The comments come days after the New York Times reported that President Barack Obama is seriously weighing the "zero option" that would end U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan amid tensions with Karzai.
Kabul suspended talks on a security agreement with the United States after a dispute over the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar for proposed peace talks involving the United States.
"Without an agreement on our presence in Afghanistan, we would not remain. But we do not believe that that's the likely outcome of these negotiations," James Dobbins, the State Department's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"Unlike Iraq, to which comparisons are often made, the Afghans actually need us to stay. Most Afghans want us to stay. And we have promised to stay."
Less than two years have passed since Obama pulled the plug on talks with Iraq about keeping a residual American force there after that war. In October, 2011, when he announced that decision, there were more than 40,000 troops in the country. By the end of the year, they had all been withdrawn.
In Afghanistan, there are still 60,000 American forces, but that number will fall to 34,000 by early next year. The United States is in discussions with Afghan officials about keeping a small residual force there of perhaps 8,000 troops.
At the Pentagon, where military commanders have made the case time and time again for keeping American forces in Afghanistan for years to come, the possibility of a zero-option cannot be ruled out if Kabul balks on a bilateral security agreement (BSA), officials say.
"It is in the best interest for the United States and Afghanistan to have an enduring military relationship post-2014," a U.S. defense official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity. "That said, a BSA is imperative to any sort of post-2014 presence."
Senior Afghan figures close to Karzai said they were skeptical that Washington would consider a complete withdrawal.
But Peter Lavoy, acting assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, told the hearing the Afghan government should not take the issue for granted and that a "fair and balanced" deal was necessary.
Dobbins said the leak about the "zero option", as far as he could tell, was intended as a negotiating ploy to leverage Kabul and acknowledgement that the public discussion on the issue was "unhelpful."
While the United States has been under pressure to specify how many troops will remain in Afghanistan, senior U.S. officials have said it may be too soon to determine the figure until the capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces were tested in the current fighting season.
The Afghan fighting season traditionally starts in spring when the snow recedes from the mountains.
AFGHAN PEACE TALKS
Meanwhile, plans for peace talks between the United States and the Taliban have stalled since the row over the opening of the Taliban office in the Qatari capital, Doha.
Karzai became enraged at the United States after the Taliban hoisted a flag and a plaque in their new office that bore the name of the "Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," the name the Taliban used for the country when they controlled it.
Dobbins, who would lead the talks, said the U.S. intention e was to move in lock step with Kabul to end Afghanistan's 12-year-old war.
Washington also wants to use the talks to seek the return of the only known U.S. prisoner of war from the conflict, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who is believed to be held by the Taliban.
"The objective here is not for us to negotiate peace in Afghanistan," Dobbins told the Senate hearing. "The objective is for us to promote an Afghan process, a process between the insurgency and the government and the High Peace Council the government has formed to address these issues."
He said he did not expect the peace talks to progress quickly.
"We're not sure it will start at all over the next year," said Dobbins. "And we're certainly not going to let it distract us from these other priorities, as you correctly suggest," he added (Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Vicki Allen and Cynthia Osterman)