WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - President Barack Obama has told the Pentagon to prepare for the possibility that no United States (US) troops will be left in Afghanistan over President Hamad Karzai's refusal to sign a joint security agreement.
The US has said that after its formal drawdown of troops from Afghanistan by year's end, it could leave a contingent of as many as 8,000 for counter-terrorism operations against al Qaeda targets and to train Afghan forces. But Karzai's refusal to sign a security deal has frustrated the White House, which has been forced to abandon an earlier demand that he sign the deal in weeks, not months.
"Specifically, President Obama has asked the Pentagon to ensure that it has adequate plans in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal by the end of the year should the United States not keep any troops in Afghanistan after 2014," the White House said in a statement on Tuesday.
Mr Obama told Mr Karzai in a phone call on Tuesday that he had given the order to the Pentagon, the White House said. Mr Obama's phone call to Mr Karzai was the first substantive discussion between the two leaders since June.
Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel was carrying the modified US position to Brussels for a meeting with North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) defense ministers that starts on Wednesday.
Staking out a new position, the White House statement said "we will leave open the possibility of concluding a BSA (bilateral security agreement) later this year. However, the longer we go without a BSA, the more challenging it will be to plan and execute any US mission."
And the longer both countries go without a security deal, "the more likely it will be that any post-2014 US mission will be smaller in scale and ambition," the statement said.
The US currently has about 33,600 troops in Afghanistan and is withdrawing the force in line with Mr Obama's vow to largely end a 12-year mission that begun after the Sept.
11, 2001 attacks.
"We were not actively planning for a complete withdrawal and now we will," said Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby.
Mr Hagel said planning for what is known as "the zero option" is a prudent step given that Mr Karzai has made clear he is unlikely to sign the security deal. Mr Karzai has suggested any security deal could wait until after Afghan elections in April.
"As the US military continues to move people and equipment out of the Afghan theater, our force posture over the next several months will provide various options for political leaders in the United States and Nato," Mr Hagel said in a statement.
A senior government official from neighbouring Pakistan predicted dire consequences should the US withdraw completely.
"In my opinion zero option should not be an option. In my opinion zero option means civil war in Afghanistan," the official told reporters in Washington.
A Nato official in Brussels said the alliance's headquarters was aware of Mr Obama's statement. Nato officials and diplomats had been playing down the delay in Mr Karzai signing the agreement in recent days.
"We will continue to develop our planning and assess the political and security conditions, so that we can take the appropriate decisions at the right time," the Nato official said.