DOD Photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

Hagel Softens on Troop Deal, Gives Karzai Until February - But Not April

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel now says Afghanistan has to sign a troop deal by February’s NATO meeting. It’s not the April elections that worries him; it’s the runoffs. By Stephanie Gaskell

This story has been updated.

After weeks of insisting that a post-2014 troop deal be signed by the end of the year, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel now says that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has until February’s NATO meeting.

Hagel met with the Afghan defense minister in Kabul this weekend -- but not Karzai – and said a decision has to be made before next February’s meeting of NATO defense ministers, backing off the administration’s initial demands that the deal is done by the end of the year.

Hagel said the U.S. still wants a deal by Dec. 31 and said he was reassured by the defense minister that the deal, which was overwhelmingly approved by the loya jirga, would be inked by then. Asked by reporters in Kabul what the final cutoff date is for a troop deal, Hagel said, “There will be at some point here a cutoff point. And I'm not prepared to give a date on that. But I would say that one of the things you might want to look at is the NATO defense ministers' ministerial meeting at the end of February. And some answer's going to be required at that NATO ministerial.”

The shift in the deadline shows that while the U.S. is growing tired of Karzai’s growing demands and wants a deal in place sooner rather than later, there is still wiggle room. Afghanistan is a key ally in the region and like in Iraq, U.S. military officials want to give a deal every chance to succeed before packing up and going home.

Karzai says he wants to wait until April’s presidential election to allow his successor to sign the deal. But Hagel said that’s not going to happen because of the potential for a lengthy runoff that will follow, only delaying the deal into the summer, perhaps even the fall.

“The election is scheduled for April 5. If there is a runoff, which is very likely, which means that it's extended for a couple months at best before a new president is elected. Now you're well in to mid-2014.

So there will be at some point here a cutoff point.”

A runoff in Afghanistan could take months to settle, giving the Pentagon just months before U.S. and coalition troops would have to leave if a deal isn’t reached with the new president. “The longer the bilateral security agreement goes without being signed, that affects confidence in every dimension of how the Afghan people, their army, their leaders go forward post 2014. It directly affects our ISAF partners, our planning, our support for them,” Hagel said.

“You can't do that at the last minute. There are budgets. There are commitments. You've got political constituencies. You've got congresses, parliaments, national leaders,” he said. “So, if for no other reason than the timeliness of having some certainty and clarification, which goes back to the point I made earlier about confidence, which gives the army, the people, all countries involved confidence that there will be a continuation of ISAF support and involvement at the invitation of the people of Afghanistan.”

A senior Pentagon spokesman told Defense One that while Hagel said February’s NATO meeting is a critical deadline, he still wants the deal done by the end of the year. "Secretary Hagel has been crystal clear that the BSA must be signed by the end of the year or else the United States will be forced to plan for a future where there are no U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014,” said Hagel spokesman Carl Woog. “His reference to the February NATO Minister's meeting was a signal that there are a lot of decisions on hold pending the BSA completion including United States and NATO allies and partners decisions about troop contributions and other International status of forces agreements."

[Click here to read more Defense One coverage of the war in Afghanistan]

It’s customary for a visiting U.S. defense secretary in Kabul to meet with Karzai and hold a joint news conference. Hagel said he was there to visit and thank U.S. troops, and had never planned to meet Karzai, but the snub was a clear message from Washington that the Obama administration is growing tired of Karzai’s stall tactics. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said in a Pentagon press conference before Hagel departed for Afghanistan that the “zero option” of pulling all U.S. troop from Afghanistan next year was a real option, albeit not preferred.

Asked why he didn’t request a meeting, given the looming deadline, to pressure Karzai to sign the deal Hagel said, “That's not my role to pressure presidents.” He said others, like Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Susan Rice, have been trying to convince Karzai to sign the deal by the end of the year.

After visiting Afghanistan, Hagel made a historic visit with the Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad. It was the first visit by a U.S. defense secretary in four years. The two leaders spoke about the importance of a post-2014 presence in Afghanistan. Sharif also warned Hagel “drone strikes were counter-productive to our efforts to combat terrorism and extremism on an enduring basis,” according to a press release from the Pakistan government.

Meanwhile, as Hagel was in Pakistan, Karzai traveled to Tehran to sign a new cooperation pact with Iran.

"Afghanistan agreed on a long-term friendship and cooperation pact with Iran," Karzai's spokesman Aimal Faizi said, according to Reuters. "The pact will be for long-term political, security, economic and cultural cooperation, regional peace and security."

After the meeting, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani posted to Twitter: “All foreign troops should be withdrawn from the region. [The] security of Afghanistan should be entrusted to the Afghan people."

And on Tuesday, in an interview with Le Monde, Karzai accused the U.S. of acting like a colonial power. "The threats they are making, ‘We won't pay salaries, we'll drive you into a civil war.’ These are threats,” he said.