Expressing growing impatience, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday he doesn't know what to believe about new assurances from Afghanistan that President Hamid Karzai is moving closer to signing a pact to keep American troops in his country next year as advisers.
"What is coming out of the presidential palace today, or what President Karzai says today, I don't know," Hagel told a news conference in Warsaw. "It changes constantly."
Hagel pointedly noted that Karzai had "agreed — personally agreed — to the bilateral security agreement" negotiated between the two nations last year, yet continues to balk at signing it.
The deal would allow some U.S. service members to remain and keep training Afghan soldiers after most of the 39,000 troops now there withdraw. The 12-year-old U.S. combat mission is set to end in December.
The Obama administration has indicated it might be willing to keep as many as 10,000 military trainers in Afghanistan to advise forces fighting the Taliban insurgency.
Earlier, on his overnight flight from Washington to Warsaw, Hagel told reporters that Karzai's foot-dragging puts at risk the planning necessary for a post-combat mission.
"You can't just keep deferring and deferring," he said, "because at some point, the realities of planning and budgeting — it collides."
Since the new year, the Obama administration has repeatedly said it needs an agreement signed in weeks, not months, if it is to keep any troops in Afghanistan in 2015.
In Kabul on Thursday, Karzai's national security adviser voiced optimism about the pact.
Rangin Dadfar Spanta said he has grown more hopeful that the Afghan leader will sign the agreement before leaving office this year. Karzai has repeatedly said he wants to wait to sign the document until after the country chooses his successor in April 5 elections.
At a news conference, Spanta said intense talks in the last few days have made him "more optimistic" that the stalemate can be broken.
"We are working very intensively together with the United States authorities to reach and sign this agreement soon," Spanta said. "I cannot go today into detail, but I don't know — since two, three, four days, I am more optimistic compared to last week. Let us wait a few days more."
If the deal falls apart, Afghanistan could lose up to $15 billion a year in aid, effectively collapsing its fragile economy and making it unable to pay its 350,000-strong army and police.
Hagel, who was visiting Polish leaders to consult on Afghanistan and other security issues, sounded skeptical at his news conference in Warsaw when asked about Spanta's remarks.
Saying that the Afghan president's position keeps changing, Hagel noted that U.S. officials, including Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top US military commander in Afghanistan, have pressed Karzai and "talk with him constantly." But they have limited ability to influence his decision, Hagel said.
He added that U.S. allies who are willing to help train and advise Afghan forces beyond 2014 also are eager to know if there will be a U.S.-Afghan security agreement soon.
Insurgents in Afghanistan have intensified attacks recently in a campaign to regain territory as foreign forces prepare to leave the country.
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