The U.S. and Afghanistan have until late February or early March to reach a deal on a security agreement, or the Department of Defense would have to plan on having no troops in the country after 2014.
The Obama administration wants a postwar deal with Afghan President Hamid Karzai by the end of the year, but that goal is in serious doubt.
On Monday, the Pentagon said it had some flexibility on the deadline for a final postwar deal with Afghanistan.
“Dec. 31 is not a hard and fast date” to have the deal signed, Defense Department spokesman Col. Steve Warren told reporters at the Pentagon.
But the Pentagon is adamant that time is running out for Karzai to approve the pact.
“We would like to see [it] signed as quickly as possible,” Warren said.
The delay is preventing U.S. commanders from coming to an endgame for Afghanistan, he said.
The deal is supposed to lay the groundwork for a postwar U.S. military presence after the 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The White House is considering a 9,000- to 10,000-man postwar force in Afghanistan, as part of 15,000-man NATO force tasked with training and counterterrorism missions. Karzai and Secretary of State John Kerry agreed to a preliminary version of the pact in October.
Top Afghan tribal leaders overwhelmingly approved the deal earlier this month, but Karzai has repeatedly delayed approval, demanding Washington accede to a number of conditions.
Those demands prompted Obama to consider abandoning the postwar pact and pulling all American troops from Afghanistan.
On Monday, Warren said the Pentagon is not planning for a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country.
But “there’s a series of things that have to happen ... and the longer we wait,” the more that option could become reality, he added.
A failed U.S. attempt for a postwar security deal in Iraq, and the subsequent pullout of all U.S. forces there, set the stage for al Qaeda’s violent resurgence in the country. Congressional lawmakers fear a similar fate for Afghanistan, should a postwar deal fall apart.