Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said he'll let his successor sign… (Findlay Kember / Pool Photo )
WASHINGTON — President Obama is prepared to extend a Dec. 31 deadline in a concession to Afghan President Hamid Karzai aimed at getting him to approve a security agreement that would permit U.S. forces to stay in Afghanistan past 2014, aides say.
The White House has warned for months that all U.S. forces will be withdrawn unless a deal is reached, and top advisors to Obama are increasingly comfortable with that prospect. At least two senior officials say the so-called zero option is strategically viable and politically acceptable, although it still isn't the preferred outcome.
Support among Obama's senior staff has grown for a full withdrawal despite objections from U.S. commanders in Afghanistan and at the Pentagon, who warn that hard-won gains by U.S. forces over the last 12 years could be reversed amid the still-bitter insurgency.
Both sides point to Iraq, which has fallen into sectarian violence since the White House withdrew all U.S. forces in 2011 after the government there refused to sign a similar deal. But the bloodletting in Iraq has barely been noticed by an American public relieved to leave the unpopular war behind.
Obama remains committed to the Afghan security agreement and wants the strategic planning to begin now. But several aides said he had agreed in principle to let the Dec. 31 signing deadline slide for several weeks.
Some in Obama's inner circle are so exasperated with Karzai that they are willing to wait until the Afghan presidential election is held April 5, as Karzai has demanded, hoping his successor will then sign the pact. That option remains under consideration, but Obama is unlikely to wait that long.
"The election is not for several months, and could take time to play out" if a runoff is required, said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. "That timeline doesn't work for us."
Waiting for the election "is not the preferred view," the official said, "but we haven't closed the door on it entirely."
The shift in U.S. thinking comes after weeks of internal debate about how to persuade the mercurial Afghan leader to sign the deal. Both sides have sought to gauge whether the other is bluffing in its demands and threats.
In public, the White House continues to call for Karzai to sign the deal as quickly as possible.
"There are no changes that are going to be made to that agreement," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday. "It can either be signed or not signed, and we believe the message is clear, emanating from Washington and from our representatives in Kabul, that it's time to sign this agreement."
The moving deadline is meant to leave flexibility for the Afghan government, aides to Obama say.
Some U.S. officials warn that without U.S. troops to conduct counter-terrorism operations and assist the Kabul government, Afghanistan could revert to the kind of ethnic warfare and political instability that provided a haven for Al Qaeda before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
But other experts say the terrorist network and its allies now pose a far greater threat in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and North Africa, and that 12 years of war and drone strikes in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan have killed nearly all the core leadership, leaving a local insurgency that doesn't threaten American interests.
The security agreement doesn't specify how many Americans would remain after 2014. Some administration officials have suggested that a few thousand, including special operations forces, would be sufficient, while military commanders have suggested that 10,000 to 12,000 are needed to train, advise and assist Afghan forces.
The accord also would provide the Afghan government with billions of dollars in military and economic aid, and give U.S. troops legal immunity from prosecution under Afghan law.
Administration officials do not agree on how quickly the deal must be approved for the Pentagon to adjust its plans. Some suggest early 2014 is a crucial period, while others argue that the Pentagon can draw down the remaining 47,000 U.S. troops and recalibrate later, if a deal emerges, to leave a residual force in place.
After a year of tense negotiations, the agreement was brokered last month and Karzai presented it to a traditional assembly of civic and tribal leaders, known as a loya jirga, for approval. The 2,500 members overwhelmingly did so and urged Karzai to sign it by Dec. 31, as the White House had requested.
But Karzai unexpectedly issued new demands, saying he would sign only if U.S. forces agreed to end night raids on Afghan homes and if Washington did more to help forge peace with the Taliban. He also said he wouldn't sign before the April 5 election.
The administration's timetable is driven in part by domestic politics. Polls show a majority of Americans favor speeding up the U.S. withdrawal, and support for getting all American troops out as quickly as possible is especially strong among Democrats.
The Afghan war has claimed the lives of 2,300 Americans since U.S. forces invaded in late 2001.
Some analysts question how America's future commitment to Afghanistan is being decided.
Anthony Cordesman, a former State and Defense department official now at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Karzai's willingness to sign the agreement shouldn't determine whether a complete U.S. withdrawal is acceptable to policymakers.
The administration shouldn't set "artificial deadlines and red lines" if it doesn't mean them, he said. More important, he said, the administration has not laid out its strategic plan and a cost-benefit analysis that justifies keeping a long-term force in Afghanistan.
"The problem in assessing the zero option is that there are zero plans, zero real debate over the issues that matter, and therefore zero substantive credibility," Cordesman said.