WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration has quietly stopped demanding that Afghan President Hamid Karzai finalize a stalled security pact within weeks, opening up the possibility that a decision on keeping U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan after this year might not be made until after Karzai's successor is elected this spring.
While U.S. officials say they still strongly prefer that the agreement be signed quickly, they did not rule out the possibility of waiting to see if a new Afghan leader might be easier to work with. Pushing off the decision on keeping troops in Afghanistan comes with increased risks and complications for the U.S. military, though the Pentagon is making adjustments to give President Barack Obama that option.
Karzai's refusal to sign the security pact has strained relations with Washington. He further exacerbated tensions on Thursday by releasing 65 militants from a former U.S. prison near Kabul. The American military angrily denounced the move, saying the men are Taliban fighters who will likely return to the battlefield to kill coalition and Afghan forces.
American-led combat operations in Afghanistan are set to end on Dec. 31, but the U.S. is seeking to keep up to 10,000 troops on the ground for counterterrorism and training missions. Without a security agreement setting conditions for the American forces, the White House has said it will remove all U.S. troops at the end of the year.
The White House had hoped Karzai would sign the bilateral security agreement by the end of last year. When that deadline passed, administration officials repeatedly said a deal needed to be signed within "weeks, not months."
But Obama administration officials quietly backed away from that timetable this week. On Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said only that the U.S. wanted the agreement to be signed "promptly" — a purposeful change in rhetoric, a U.S. official said. The official was not authorized to publicly discuss the administration's thinking and insisted on anonymity.