President Obama told Afghanistan's president on Tuesday that the U.S. will move ahead with plans to remove all troops from that country by the end of the year.
While Obama made it clear that his wish is to sign a bilateral security agreement (BSA) that would allow a smaller number of U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan, he said the U.S. would no longer wait for a deal before preparing for a full withdrawal.
Obama delivered the message to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai in a Tuesday morning phone call.
During the call, Obama repeatedly asked the Afghan leader to sign the agreement before April 5 presidential elections, said Karzai's spokesman Aimal Faizi.
Because Karzai has “demonstrated he is unlikely to sign” the agreement, Obama is moving forward without him, a White House statement detailing the call said.
“Should we have a BSA and a willing and committed partner in the Afghan government, a limited post-2014 mission focused on training, advising, and assisting Afghan forces and going after the remnants of core Al Qaeda could be in the interests of the United States and Afghanistan,” the statement said.
The last time Obama and Karzai spoke via telephone or video conference was June.
The U.S. has been pressing Karzai to sign a bilateral security agreement for more than a year, but Karzai has repeatedly refused to do so, saying he wanted to wait for his successor to sign it.
The statement warned that the longer the U.S. goes without an agreement, the more challenging it would be to plan and execute any U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
“The longer we go without a BSA, the more likely it will be that any post-2014 U.S. mission will be smaller in scale and ambition,” the statement said.
Members of Congress have long since lost patience with Karzai, and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said the U.S. should stop pressing him to sign the security deal because it is clear he has no intention of doing so.
“It just gives him the wrong impression that we need his signature when we don't,” said Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We need a president's signature — it doesn't have to be his.”
He said he hoped the administration told Karzai “that they're not going to press him further and that they're going to look to the next president.”
“I've urged the administration to no longer pressure him,” he said. “His signature is not that reliable in any event. He could sign something and change his mind.”
The decision comes ahead of a NATO defense ministerial this week where the post-2014 NATO presence in Afghanistan will be discussed.
“This is a prudent step given that President Karzai has demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign the Bilateral Security Agreement, which would provide DoD personnel with critical protections and authorities after 2014,” said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a separate statement.
Karzai has said he would sign the agreement in the month before the elections only if the U.S. and Pakistan can convince the Taliban to publicly agree to and begin peace talks with the Afghan government, and if the U.S. agrees to halt all military attacks on Afghan homes and villages, Faizi said.
Otherwise, Karzai will wait until his successor signs the agreement, sometime after he is sworn in in August, provided the elections go smoothly. That would leave about four months for the U.S. to prepare for a post-2014 training and counterterrorism mission, or to withdraw all troops should the agreement go unsigned.
“We want a meaningful launch of the peace process,” said Faizi.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said he couldn't identify a “specific point” after which the U.S. would no longer consider a post-2014 mission in Afghanistan, but warned continuing delay would add more challenges.
Other members of Congress have suggested tying U.S. aid to signing the BSA, but Carney hinted that the White House would not support such a move.
“I think that we've made clear that our commitment to Afghanistan, separate from a potential troop presence beyond 2014, is in our national security interest,” Carney said.
Obama and Karzai also discussed preparations for Afghanistan’s upcoming elections and Afghan-led peace and reconciliation efforts, the White House said.
The president affirmed U.S. support for “fair, credible, timely” elections, as well as support for Afghan forces that will secure the elections, according to a White House statement on Tuesday.
Karzai also updated the president with efforts on peace and reconciliation efforts with the Taliban.
--The Hill's Justin Sink contributed to this report.