A complete withdrawal by NATO troops from Afghanistan could begin as early as this spring, if a postwar pact cannot be reached between the U.S. and President Hamid Karzai.
The spring deadline suggested by NATO Supreme Allied Commander Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove on Wednesday is the first clear indication the alliance is willing to move ahead with a full withdrawal, known as the zero option.
American and coalition military planners are already coordinating final troop rotations out of Afghanistan, which would end with the final allied soldiers leaving the country this spring.
That final rotation will coincide with the country's presidential elections, tentatively scheduled for April.
A decision on whether a follow-on, postwar force will be sent into Afghanistan must be finalized before those final U.S. and NATO troops come from in the spring, Breedlove explained.
That decision hinges on whether the Karzai administration approves a U.S.-brokered postwar plan, known inside the Pentagon as the bilateral security agreement, which has been under negotiation for the past several months.
If no agreement is reached on the BSA, planning would have to begin in early Spring for a complete withdrawal.
U.S. commanders in Washington have made similar threats on the zero option, but have so far refrained from placing any deadlines on such decisions.
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 Karzai's 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, have the Obama White House considering the zero option as well.
That said, administration officials seem to be granting more leeway to the Afghan leader in recent weeks.
Initially White House and Pentagon leaders demanded Karzai sign the deal by the end of the year.
Earlier this month, White House spokesman Josh Earnest suggested the administration would be willing to accept a postwar deal by February. Breedlove's comments suggest Afghan leaders will have until the spring to make a final decision on the pact.
In a surprising move, Senate Armed Services Committee chief Sen. Carl LevinCarl LevinFor the sake of American taxpayers, companies must pay their fair share What the Iran-Contra investigation can teach us about Russia probe Senate about to enter 'nuclear option' death spiral MORE (D-Mich.) slammed the White House for acquiescing to pressure from the Karzai administration.
The moving deadline "contribute to President Karzai's mistaken belief that the United States needs Afghanistan more than Afghanistan needs the United States," Levin said in a December letter to Obama.
For his part, the Michigan Democrat suggested the White House wait until Karzai's successor is in office, before pressing ahead with a postwar pact.
"The next Afghan president, whoever he is, is also likely to be more reliable than President Karzai, and there would be greater confidence in his sticking with an agreement he has signed," Levin wrote at the time.