The U.S. could cut out President Hamid Karzai from the peace process in Afghanistan altogether, following the wartime leader's recent balks at signing an agreement for coalition troops to stay after 2014.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that a senior Afghan official such as the defense minister could sign the post-2014 bilateral security agreement, or BSA, instead of Karzai, according to multiple press reports. This document defines the size and role of U.S forces in Afghanistan, as well as protection for them. A general assembly of tribal leaders, known as the Loya Jirga, has approved the current framework for around 10,000 troops that would include legal immunity for them.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday that the military would be open to such a resolution to the stalemate brought on by Karzai.
"The issue of who has the authority to speak for a sovereign nation of Afghanistan, I suppose the lawyers can figure that out," said Hagel. "What we would be interested in, certainly as a secretary of defense, is whatever document is agreed to...someone has the authority to sign on behalf of Afghanistan. I suspect that would fulfill the kind of commitment we need."
Afghan ministers followed up Wednesday, saying that they likely would not sign a pact without Karzai's nod.
Hagel said the Loya Jirga had "enthusiastically, strongly endorsed the text" of the BSA agreed upon by President Barack Obama and Kerry and presented in November.
"What we need to account for is the freedom of movement for military personnel," said Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey on Wednesday. "[And] legal protections against an Afghan legal system that is best described as 'nascent.'"
The military also requires an infrastructure for force protection, he said.
As for whether the U.S. would be willing to cut and run entirely, as it did in Iraq in 2011, Dempsey said, "I have not been told to plan for a 'zero option.'"
"Clearly, I understand the possibility given the current impasse," he added.
The U.S. remains flexible, but the coalition of 44 countries it has built to bolster the fighting in Afghanistan, as well as the local forces they train are much more brittle.
"We will see an erosion of the coalition" without a BSA approval, Dempsey said. "It really needs to be done now. Mostly because what's hanging in the balance in Afghanistan is confidence. The Afghan National Security Forces are very capable, but they're not confident."