The United States is preparing for the possible total withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan at the end of this year, President Barack Obama told his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai yesterday as the leaders wrangled over security plans.
The warning, delivered in a telephone call between the two presidents, raises the stakes in the negotiation between Kabul and Washington over the size of the American military presence in the country after December 31.
Mr Karzai, who will step down as president after elections in April, is refusing to sign an agreement that would allow 10,000 US troops to remain in Afghanistan for counter-terrorism and training purposes, even though it was ratified by a council of Afghan elders last November.
Mr Obama told Mr Karzai that he had asked the Pentagon to ensure that it had "adequate plans in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal by the end of the year" if no agreement could be struck, according to an account of the conversation released by the White House.
He said that even if the agreement was signed by Mr Karzai's successor, the delays could lead to a US mission that was "smaller in scale and ambition" than that currently proposed.
"The longer we go without a BSA (bilateral security agreement), the more challenging it will be to plan and execute any US mission," he said. His warnings appear to reflect mounting US frustration with the Karzai administration, which regularly berates the US-led NATO mission in Afghanistan for causing civilian casualties and impinging on sovereignty.
In recent weeks, senior figures including Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO secretary-general, and James Clapper, America's top intelligence official, have said that they did not expect Mr Karzai to sign the agreement before he leaves office. But Mr Rasmussen said that he still expected it to be signed by a new Afghan president following the election.
There are fears, shared by both the Afghan and Western governments that have formed the military coalition, that a total withdrawal would precipitate a security crisis in Afghanistan, where the Taliban remains a potent force.
Chuck Hagel, the US defence secretary, also confirmed for the first time that the Pentagon was actively planning a full troop withdrawal. (© Daily Telegraph, London)