US could bypass Karzai on postwar deal, says DOD

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday opened the door to bypassing Afghan President Hamid Karzai's approval for a long-awaited postwar deal, suggesting other senior officials in Kabul could approve the pact. 

Official approval of the pact by Afghan Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi or other members of Karzai's Cabinet could "fulfill the kind of commitment we need" to proceed with postwar planning and operations, Hagel said Wednesday. 

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But "whatever document [Kabul] agrees to ... who has the authority to sign on behalf of Afghanistan" and give the postwar pact the green light is still an open question, the Pentagon chief added. 

Hagel's comments come a day after Secretary of State John Kerry said Mohammadi's approval could be all Washington needed to move ahead with the plan, known inside the Pentagon as the bilateral security agreement. 

The Obama administration has repeatedly stated its demand for an Afghan postwar deal to be completed by the end of the year. 

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, which include banning all U.S. forces from entering Afghan homes and the unconditional release of all Afghan detainees in U.S. custody at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, are prompting the White House to explore other approval options. 

But on Wednesday, Kabul reiterated that Karzai alone has the authority to approve the postwar plan. 

“President Karzai wants an absolute end to the military operations on Afghan homes and a meaningful start to the peace process, and we are certain that the Americans can practically do that within days or weeks,” Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, said. 

“As long as these demands are not accepted, President Karzai will not authorise any minister to sign it,” he told The Associated Press. 

Karzai's demands have also reignited debate inside the Obama White House to consider abandoning the postwar pact and pulling all American troops from Afghanistan. 

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. 

But without a postwar plan in place, the Pentagon will not have the authority to keep any American forces in country past the White House's 2014 withdrawal deadline. 

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said Wednesday he has not been ordered to start planning for a complete U.S. pullout from Afghanistan, known as the "zero option." 

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 Dempsey did all but guarantee an "erosion" among Afghan forces' ability to secure the country, the longer Kabul waits to approve a postwar deal. 

"We are not the limiting factor," he said.