WASHINGTON -- With no sign of a deal for a post-2014 security agreement with Afghanistan on the horizon, President Obama on Tuesday offered a blunt warning to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai that time is running out to forge a deal to keep U.S. troops beyond the end of the year.
Obama, who spoke by phone with Karzai on Tuesday, has asked the Pentagon to ensure that plans are in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal by the end of the year should the two countries not forge a new bilateral security agreement (BSA), according to the White House.
A major stipulation for the U.S. is that any security agreement continue to offer U.S. troops immunity from prosecution under Afghan laws. Without such an agreement, the Obama administration would not allow troops to remain in the country beyond 2014.
"President Obama told President Karzai that because he has demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign the BSA, the United States is moving forward with additional contingency planning," the White House said in a statement.
Obama, however, also told Karzai that if a BSA can be reached, he remains ready to keep a yet-to-be-determined number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to focus on training, advising and assisting Afghan forces and going after the remnants of core al-Qaeda.
The frank exchange with the Afghan president comes as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel prepares to head to Brussels to meet with his NATO counterparts, where planning for post-2014 force levels in Afghanistan is on the agenda.
While the White House said a deal can still be reached this year, it suggested the longer negotiations drag on, the smaller the U.S. presence may be. Obama also discussed his administration's efforts to reach an agreement with Afghanistan with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, during a White House meeting shortly after his call with Karzai, said White House press secretary Jay Carney.
"The longer we go without a BSA, the more challenging it will be to plan and execute any U.S. mission," Obama said. "Furthermore, the longer we go without a BSA, the more likely it will be that any post-2014 U.S. mission will be smaller in scale and ambition."
Hagel said Tuesday that the Pentagon has begun planning for a complete withdrawal of troops by year's end.
"This is a prudent step, given that President Karzai has demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign the Bilateral Security Agreement, which would provide DoD personnel with critical protections and authorities after 2014," Hagel said in a statement.
Last year, Hagel said military planners needed to know by Jan. 1 if an agreement would allow U.S. troops to stay in the country past 2014.
He later hedged on that, saying there was some flexibility in planning. Tuesday's announcement is the first public indication that the U.S. military is moving to leave the country completely after 13 years of war. There are about 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The inability for Obama administration to forge an agreement with Iraq that included immunity from prosecution for the U.S. military led to the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from that country at the end of 2011.
There are currently 33,600 U.S. troops in Afghanistan,according to the Pentagon, and Defense Department advisers have drawn plans to leave as many as 10,000 U.S. troops in the country starting next year.
The White House first publicly floated the possibility of a "zero option" in Afghanistan in early 2013 to prod Karzai to get a deal done and has repeatedly underscored that the without a new agreement the U.S. and international security forces will have to withdraw all troops when the war formally ends at the end of 2014.
Karzai, however, has said that his successor should decide whether to sign the pact after Afghanistan holds elections this spring.
Republicans have stepped up criticism of Obama, who they say has been detached on the issue. The last time the White House publicized a call between Obama and Karzai was June.
"For the life of me, I can't figure out why the president hasn't taken credit for these victories," said Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said on Monday. "The gains since 2009 are three-fold – strategic, diplomatic and moral."
The White House pushed backed on Tuesday against suggestions that Obama hasn't been forceful enough on the issue.
"It' a preposterous suggestion," Carney said. "The decision of President Karzai to indicate that it is unlikely that he'll sign the BSA that his government negotiated is obviously his decision. But it's not because we haven't made it clear that it ought to be signed."