WASHINGTON The White House would like Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign a bilateral security agreement by the end of the year, but the deadline could slip into early January, a spokesman said on Wednesday.
The United States has insisted that Karzai sign the pact by the end of the year. The deal would permit the United States to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014 to support Afghan forces and conduct limited counterterrorism activities.
"If you're asking, 'Does that mean that if they sign it on January 10th, that's going to be a huge problem?' Probably not," said Josh Earnest, a deputy spokesman for the White House.
"What will be a significant problem is if there is not quick action taken to get this signed," Earnest told a news briefing.
The United States says it gave Afghanistan a year-end deadline to sign the agreement because it needs time to plan its troop presence after 2014. Without a deal, Washington says it would have to withdraw its entire force of some 44,500 troops by the end of 2014. Other NATO nations could follow suit.
Afghan elders and politicians endorsed the pact last month, but Karzai surprised Washington by introducing new conditions for his signature.
The tactics have frustrated the Obama administration, but on Tuesday, James Dobbins, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told a U.S. Senate hearing that the 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," Dobbins told the hearing.
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Jeff Mason; Editing by Vicki Allen and David Brunnstrom)