ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT The United States and its allies cannot continue to put off decisions about a post-2014 mission in Afghanistan, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said, urging Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign a pact allowing U.S. troops to stay beyond this year.
"You can't just keep deferring and deferring, because at some point the realities of planning and budgeting and all that is required collides," Hagel told reporters late on Wednesday, aboard a military aircraft en route to Poland.
The Obama administration has been pressing Karzai to sign the agreement, which was concluded last year, for months, warning that U.S. and NATO nations could be forced to pull all soldiers out by the end of the year, leaving Afghanistan vulnerable to Taliban resurgence or even civil war.
Karzai, meanwhile, has demanded an end to U.S. military operations on Afghan homes and a step forward in hoped-for peace talks with the Taliban before he will sign the deal.
Hagel said President Barack Obama was personally examining what a possible post-2014 U.S. force in Afghanistan might look like, should the security pact be finalized this year.
The U.S. military has advocated keeping a modest-sized force of around 10,000 soldiers in Afghanistan to anchor a post-2014 mission that would focus on training and supporting Afghan forces and conducting counter-terrorism activities.
Administration officials say no decisions have yet been made. It is unclear whether the Obama administration would be willing to wait until after Afghanistan elects a new leader in April to finalize the deal, or whether it will call off plans for a post-2014 presence before then.
Hagel said his counterparts from NATO nations were likewise concerned about the delay in finalizing their plans for Afghanistan beyond this year. "They have parliaments, they have budgets, they have their citizens," he said.
Hagel said that while officials continued to urge Karzai to finalize the deal, there were limits to what the United States could do.
"(Karzai) is the elected president of a sovereign nation, and our ability to influence whatever decisions an elected president and leader of a sovereign nation makes on behalf of their country is limited," he said.
(Reporting By Missy Ryan; Editing by Andrew Heavens)