WASHINGTON – The Obama administration gave the first explicit signal Tuesday that it might leave no troops in Afghanistan after December 2014, an option that defies the Pentagon’s view that thousands of troops may be needed to keep a lid on al-Qaida and to strengthen Afghan forces.

“The U.S. does not have an inherent objective of ‘X’ number of troops in Afghanistan,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. “We have an objective of making sure there is no safe haven for al-Qaida in Afghanistan and making sure that the Afghan government has a security force that is sufficient to ensure the stability of the Afghan government.”

The U.S. now has 66,000 troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of about 100,000 as recently as 2010.