DOD photo by Sgt. Aaron Hostutler

Hagel: ‘No Magical Date’ for Post-2014 Troop Deal with Afghanistan

There’s “no magical date” to sign a post-2014 troop deal with Afghanistan – but it needs to be signed sooner, rather than later, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday.

Hagel previously had said that he wanted a bilateral security agreement in place by the end of the year, and later seemed to give some wiggle room by suggesting that it needed to be signed by the time NATO holds its defense ministerial meeting in February.

Instead, it appears clear that the U.S. will be left waiting into next year for Afghan President Hamid Karzai who said he wants to wait until his successor is chosen in April to sign a deal outlining how many U.S. and NATO troops will stay beyond the planned 2014 withdrawal. On Wednesday, Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, said he’d have to start planning for a post-war presence by this spring.

Whatever the date, Hagel said it must be soon so that Afghanistan doesn’t lose confidence in the U.S. commitment to their fight against the Taliban.

“There’s no magical date,” Hagel said during a press briefing with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey at the Pentagon. “Does it have to be Dec. 30 or Jan. 6 — but the reality is these are days, as I said, you can’t get back. It takes an immense amount of planning and time as you think through, what are you committing to? Those are just the realities of what we’re up against here. And it takes options away the longer this goes.”

(Read More: When Does the U.S. Really Need Afghanistan to Sign the Troop Deal?)

The Marine Corps Times published a story this week about reports that Afghan security forces had given control of Sangin in Helmand Province to the Taliban. Sangin, once a stronghold of the Taliban, was hard-fought territory for the U.S. Marines, but now it’s reportedly back under control of the Taliban and many say it’s because they are betting on the U.S. and NATO leaving.

“This is exactly why we need the BSA to be signed, because what hangs in the balance the longer the BSA is unresolved is that confidence of the people of Sangin questioning whether we’re going to actually be there for them and continue to allow the ANSF to develop so that it can counter the Taliban’s influence. So if you want an example of why we need the BSA signed soon – there’s one,” Dempsey said.  

A reporter asked Dempsey if there was a drop-dead date for a troop deal to be signed. “Are you asking me for a red line?” Dempsey joked.