WASHINGTON -- The White House is dropping its insistence that Afghanistan sign a crucial security pact within weeks, suggesting it could be willing to wait to see whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai's successor might be easier to work with in deciding how many U.S. and international troops remain in Afghanistan when combat concludes at the end of the year.
Karzai further exacerbated tensions with Washington on Thursday by releasing 65 accused militants from a former U.S. prison near Kabul. The American military angrily denounced the move, saying the men are Taliban fighters who will likely return to the battlefield to kill coalition and Afghan forces.
Even before the prisoner release, a U.S. official said the White House has not ruled out waiting until after Afghanistan's April elections to see if a new leader will finalize the bilateral security agreement Karzai stubbornly refuses to sign. The official said President Barack Obama has not yet decided whether to wait that long, adding that doing so comes with increased risks and complications for the U.S. military.
American-led combat operations in Afghanistan will end on Dec. 31, but the U.S. is seeking to keep up to 10,000 troops on the ground for counterterrorism and training missions. But without a signed security agreement setting conditions for the American forces, the White House has said it will remove all U.S. troops at the end of the year.
The White House had hoped Karzai would sign the bilateral security agreement by the end of last year. When that deadline passed, administration officials repeatedly said a deal needed to be signed within "weeks, not months."
But Obama administration officials quietly backed away from that timetable this week. On Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said only that the U.S. wanted the agreement to be signed "promptly" -- a purposeful change in rhetoric, the U.S. official said. The official insisted on anonymity because that official was not authorized to publicly discuss the administration's thinking.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf also avoided putting a specific timetable on finalizing the agreement, saying Thursday that the U.S. position was simply that "it needs to be signed soon."
Karzai's refusal to sign the security pact, along with his increasingly anti-American rhetoric, has strained relations with the Obama administration. During remarks Thursday on the prisoner release, Karzai accused the U.S. of "harassing" the Afghan judiciary by criticizing the release and said Washington must respect Afghanistan's sovereignty.
"If Afghanistan judiciary authorities decide to release prisoners, it is of no concern to the United States," Karzai said from Turkey, where he is attending a regional summit.
Karzai had long demanded that the U.S. turn over the Parwan Detention Facility to Afghan authorities, a process completed last March after lengthy negotiations that centered on American concerns that some of the most dangerous detainees would go free.
The U.S. military strongly condemned the prisoner release, saying some of those set free were directly linked to attacks that have killed or wounded 32 U.S. or coalition personnel and 23 Afghan security personnel or civilians. The U.S. had argued for the detainees to face trial in Afghan courts, citing strong evidence against them -- from DNA linking them to roadside bombs to explosive residue on their clothing. However, Kabul said there was insufficient proof to hold them.
Harf also condemned the release as a danger to coalition and Afghan troops and added that "many of these men who have been released, their primary weapon of choice has been the IED, which of course poses not just a threat to coalition forces and Afghan forces, but also Afghan civilians."
Obama's critics suggested the lack of clarity over the future U.S. role in Afghanistan may be contributing to Karzai's unpredictable behavior.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said that while Karzai is to blame for Thursday's prisoner release, the move is "a reminder that we need President Obama to better explain his commitment to finishing the job our country began."
Karzai had tentatively endorsed the bilateral security deal, and it was approved in November by a council of 3,000 tribal elders known as the Loya Jirga. But then Karzai refused to sign it, saying he wants his successor to decide about it after the April 5 presidential election. Karzai is ineligible to seek a third term.
James Clapper, Obama's director of National Intelligence, told a Senate panel this week that he does not believe Karzai will ever sign the agreement, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. official to draw that conclusion publicly. However, Clapper said that was his personal assessment, not the administration's official position.
The White House says Obama wants the agreement signed as quickly as possible in order to give the U.S. and its NATO partners more time to plan for either a post-2014 troop presence or a full withdrawal.
The longer those decisions take, the more expensive and risky the troop drawdown will become. With less time to move troops and equipment, the military will have to fly assets out rather than use cheaper ground transportation.
However, the U.S. military is making plans that could help Obama put off the decision on troop levels until later this year, perhaps after Karzai's election. Military officials say Pentagon plans envision that the American force that could drop to as low as 20,000 by mid-summer, giving commanders the ability to pull all troops out by Dec. 31 if no agreement is reached.
Forces deploying to Afghanistan in the coming months will also be equipped to continue the training and counterterrorism mission past 2014 if needed.
If the security pact is never signed, the Pentagon's biggest challenge will be closing large military facilities, including the Bagram and Kandahar air bases. Shutting down a massive base typically it takes about 10 months, but military officials said they are prepared to do it in a much shorter -- although far more expensive -- timeline if necessary. Military officials said commanders would still like to have about six months to shut the facilities down. If there is no security agreement by late summer, the officials said closing the bases by the end of the year becomes far more difficult.