BERLIN NATO would have to start planning for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan by early next spring if President Hamid Karzai refuses to sign a security pact allowing foreign troops to stay on, the alliance's top military commander said on Tuesday.
Karzai's ties with Washington have been strained by his refusal to sign a security agreement that will shape the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014 when most international troops will leave.
Without the U.S.-Afghan accord, NATO says it will not be able to finalize its own agreement with the Afghan government setting the terms for troops from other allies to remain in Afghanistan after 2014.
The United States and NATO say that, without these agreements, they would have to pull all of their forces, currently 84,000-strong, out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, said planning for the last rotation of combat soldiers would have to happen early next spring, around the time in April the country is holding its presidential election.
Whether it leaves a small post-2014 training force, or goes for the "zero option" of pulling out all its forces, NATO would have to start planning then, Breedlove said.
"If we were to go to a more drastic option in Afghanistan it takes a certain amount of time to get a force out of a nation ... And that timeline I don't think is well understood by President Karzai," he told a small group of reporters.
Karzai has shrugged off U.S. talk of a total military pullout from Afghanistan if he does not sign the security agreement as brinkmanship and said he would not back down on his conditions for the deal.
Karzai told reporters in New Delhi last Saturday that the security pact was conditional on the United States stopping raids on Afghan homes and helping to restart a peace process with the Taliban.
Breedlove also said that NATO was "not lacking offers" of troops to replace French soldiers who are due to leave the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo by the middle of next year.
"We are in consultations with several nations at this moment," he said, without specifying which countries.
The larger problem was who would take over the running of a base at Novo Selo in Kosovo where French soldiers are currently stationed, he said.
France plans to withdraw its 320 troops from Kosovo, citing commitments in Mali and Central African Republic.