The Obama administration is softening its demand that Afghanistan sign a security agreement by the end of the year or risk a withdrawal of all Americans troops, a threat that alarmed military officials and U.S. allies but did little to sway Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The administration could still end all U.S. military support by the end of 2014 if Karzai or his successor fail to sign the security deal soon, officials insist. For now, however, Karzai's refusal to sign it by Dec. 31 has forced U.S. officials to back off their stated deadline.
The agreement "should be signed by the end of this year in order for us to start going through the important planning process," White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Wednesday.
"Now, if you're asking me, does that mean that if they sign it on Jan. 10 that's going to be a huge problem? Probably not," Earnest said. "What will be a significant problem is if there is not quick action taken to get this signed."
The bilateral security agreement was negotiated over the past year in anticipation of the planned withdrawal of U.S. and NATO combat forces at the end of 2014.
The agreement provides a legal framework for continued U.S. military operations in Afghanistan on a much smaller scale.
The deal also serves as the backbone of other international pledges of military and economic aid for Afghanistan, much of which would dry up if the United States folded its tent.