White House: Afghan troop deal must be signed in 'weeks and not months'

The White House on Monday said a bilateral security agreement to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014 must be finished in “weeks and not months.”

"I don't have a specific deadline or other policy decisions to announce today. But I can tell you that we're talking about weeks and not months," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Monday.

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That timeline is shorter than the one suggested by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who says he wants the agreement to be delayed until after the nation's presidential elections on April 5.

The Obama administration had been pushing to finish the agreement by Dec. 31, but allowed for more time after Karzai balked.

The Afghan national council approved the terms of the agreement late last year, but Karzai says he wants to leave the decision on ratification to the incoming president.

U.S. officials want the deal signed soon, and are concerned about only having eight months before the end of 2014 to plan for an extension of U.S. forces or for a complete drawdown from the country.

Officials say without a signed agreement, the United States cannot begin planning for a post-war presence that's expected to fall within 8,000 to 10,000 NATO troops.

"The clock is ticking for the reasons I laid out: We can't contemplate a continued presence there absent a signed bilateral security agreement," Carney said. 

U.S. and Iraqi officials failed to sign a similar agreement governing U.S. troop presence in Iraq, causing the precipitous withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces from the country by December 2011. On Friday, al Qaeda militants seized the western city of Fallujah in Anbar province, the location of some of the fiercest fighting during the Iraq War.

If an agreement with Afghanistan is not signed soon, U.S. officials will have to plan for the withdrawal of all troops there, Carney said, referring to what the administration has dubbed the "zero option."

"Our position continues to be that if we cannot conclude a bilateral security agreement promptly, then we will be forced to initiate planning for a post-2014 future in which there would be no U.S. or NATO troop presence in Afghanistan," he said.

"That's not the policy the president believes is best. And we don't believe it's in Afghanistan's interest. But the further this slips into 2014, the more likely that outcome will come to pass."