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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai began a crucial round of talks on Friday that are expected to help determine how fast the United States withdraws troops from Afghanistan and whether it leaves a residual force after 2014.
Hosting Karzai at the White House, Obama faces the challenge of pressing ahead with his re-election pledge to continue winding down the long war in Afghanistan while preparing the Afghan government to prevent a slide back into chaos and a Taliban resurgence once most NATO forces are gone.
Karzai's visit, which follows a year of growing strains in U.S.-Afghan ties, comes amid stepped-up deliberations in Washington over the size and scope of the U.S. military role in Afghanistan once the NATO-led combat mission concludes at the end of next year.
White House officials have left open the possibility of a complete U.S. withdrawal after 2014 - as happened in Iraq in 2011 - an option that conflicts with the Pentagon's view that thousands of troops will be needed to bolster and train still-fragile Afghan security forces.
But talk of this "zero option" may actually be a gambit to squeeze concessions from Karzai, who has yet to agree on immunity from prosecution for any U.S. forces that stay behind under a bilateral security pact being negotiated. It could also send a message to the Pentagon to scale back expectations of future troop levels.
The White House believes Obama and Karzai, despite a history of sometimes tense relations, can narrow their differences in the closed-door meetings in Washington. But Obama aides expect no breakthroughs or concrete conclusions and say it will be months before Obama decides how many troops - if any - he wants to keep in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials have said privately that the White House is asking for options to be developed for keeping between 3,000 and 9,000 troops in the country. General John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, had initially suggested that as many as 15,000 troops should remain - a number Obama would likely have a hard time selling to a war-weary American public.
With some 66,000 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan, Obama is also deciding on the pace of this year's troop reductions. NATO allies are also steadily reducing troop numbers and Afghan forces are due to take the lead role in security across the country in 2013. However, doubts remain about their ability to shoulder full responsibility.
Obama once called Afghanistan a "war of necessity," but he is heading into a second term looking for an orderly way out of the conflict, which was sparked by the September 11, 2001 attacks by al Qaeda on the United States.
Former Senator Chuck Hagel, Obama's nominee to become defence secretary, is likely to favour a sizable troop reduction.
Deliberations between Obama and his aides on winding down the unpopular war will have to compete with other priorities dominating his agenda, including the next round of U.S. fiscal showdowns and an intensifying push for gun-control measures.
Many of Obama's Republican opponents have criticized him for setting a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan and accuse him of undercutting the U.S. mission by reducing the size of the U.S. force there too quickly.
Karzai, wearing green and purple robes, said nothing to reporters as he stepped out of a black limousine and entered the West Wing of the White House to start his talks with Obama.
The Oval Office encounter - together with a working lunch with Obama, followed by a joint news conference at 1:15 p.m. EST (1815 GMT)- caps a series of meetings this week with Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and top lawmakers.
"After a long and difficult past, we finally are, I believe, at the last chapter of establishing ... a sovereign Afghanistan that can govern and secure itself for the future," Panetta told Karzai at the Pentagon on Thursday.
Panetta said both sides were committed to the goals approved at the NATO summit in Chicago in May, which calls for a continuing effort by Western nations to train, advise and assist Afghan forces, while pursuing a gradual pullout of foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.
Also on the agenda for the Obama-Karzai talks are tentative reconciliation efforts involving Taliban insurgents. Those efforts have shown flickers of life after nearly 10 months of limbo.
Karzai and his U.S. partners have not always seen eye to eye, even though the American military has been seen as crucial to securing his tenure from insurgents' attempts to oust him.
In October, Karzai accused the United States of playing a double game by fighting the war in Afghan villages instead of going after those in neighbouring Pakistan who support insurgents.
Adding to tensions has been a rash of deadly "insider" attacks by Afghan soldiers and police against NATO-led troops training or working with them. U.S. forces have also been involved in a series of incidents that enraged Afghans, including burning Korans, which touched off days of rioting.
Additional reporting by David Alexander and Warren Strobel; Editing by David Brunnstrom