WASHINGTON The Obama administration is 'nowhere near' deciding to pull out all troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2014, a top U.S. official said on Tuesday, despite mounting frustration President Hamid Karzai has not signed a security deal allowing the military to remain there after next year.
"I have no doubt that the (bilateral security agreement with Afghanistan) ultimately will be concluded," Ambassador James Dobbins, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
While Dobbins said that an ongoing delay to finalizing the deal - which U.S. officials had hoped Karzai would sign weeks ago - would impose "damages and costs" on Afghans, he said the Obama administration was not on the verge of abandoning its effort to extend its troop presence.
"We're nowhere near a decision that would involve our departing Afghanistan altogether," he said.
The administration has been urging Karzai to sign the bilateral security agreement (BSA) it negotiated with Karzai's government, which would permit it to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014 to support Afghan forces and conduct limited counterterrorism activities.
After Afghan elders and politicians endorsed the pact last month, Karzai surprised Washington by introducing new conditions for his signature.
If no deal can be finalized, Washington says it will withdraw its entire force of 47,000 troops in a little over a year. Other NATO nations are likely to follow suit.
The absence of foreign troops would likely dampen donor nations' willingness to fund Afghan troops and provide civilian aid.
"My judgment is no troops, no aid, or almost no aid," Dobbins said. If security conditions were to worsen sharply, he said, United States could conceivably even close its embassy in Kabul.
There are fears that the Taliban and other militants ultimately could regain strength, the central government could founder, and Afghanistan be plunged anew into civil war.
The possibility of a full withdrawal of foreign forces is already having a dangerous impact on Afghanistan, Dobbins said, as people pull money out of the country, property prices fall and the Afghan currency slips in value.
Larry Sampler, a senior official at the U.S. Agency for International Development, told senators that it would be more difficult to find ways to carry out promised civilian assistance for impoverished Afghanistan without a security deal and a foreign troop presence.
As U.S. frustrations with Karzai become increasingly public, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made a surprise visit to Kabul last weekend. But in an unusual move, he did not meet with Karzai.
In an interview with French newspaper Le Monde, Karzai accused the United States of applying 'colonial' pressure on him to sign the pact and said Dobbins suggested during a recent visit to Kabul that without a security agreement there would be no peace.
The Obama administration has not yet said precisely how many troops it would leave in Afghanistan after 2014 if a deal is finalized that would fight a Taliban that remains a potent, if diminished, force,
Senator John McCain, a Republican, pressed Dobbins for clarity on how many soldiers would be left in Afghanistan post-2014, and said announcing future troops levels might persuade Karzai to sign.
"By not doing so you're making a very, very serious mistake," McCain said.
He said the Obama administration risked repeating the course of events in Iraq, where U.S. officials halted efforts to seal a security deal with Iraq in late 2011, prompting the full withdrawal of U.S. troops at the end of that year.
Violence in Iraq is now at its highest level in at least five years, and more than 8,000 people have been killed this year, the United Nations says.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)