STUTTGART, Germany — NATO defense ministers will discuss plans for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 should Afghanistan and the U.S. fail to reach agreement on a key long-term security deal, the alliance’s top official said Wednesday.
“This is not our preferred outcome. But these are the facts — facts that we need to take into account in our planning,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at the start of a two-day ministerial meeting in Brussels.
Rasmussen’s comments echoed those of President Barack Obama, who on Tuesday informed Afghan President Hamid Karzai by phone about U.S. plans for a possible exit at the end of the year.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Pentagon would “move ahead with additional contingency planning to ensure adequate plans are in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal by the end of the year should the United States not keep any troops in Afghanistan after 2014.”
The U.S. and Karzai have been at odds over a security deal that is required to ensure the presence of a small, residual force once the U.S.-led coalition withdraws its combat troops from Afghanistan later this year. Planning for the future mission, which would focus on training Afghan forces and hunting down al-Qaida remnants, has been complicated by Karzai’s refusal to sign a security deal.
Without a Bilateral Security Agreement between Kabul and Washington, NATO would have no choice but to follow the U.S. out of Afghanistan, Rasmussen said.
“If the Bilateral Security Agreement between the United States and Afghanistan is not signed, there will be no NATO Status of Forces Agreement with Afghanistan. And if there is no agreement, there will be no NATO troops in Afghanistan after 2014,” Rasmussen said.
The U.S. and NATO have not set a deadline for reaching a security agreement that would grant international troops immunity from the Afghan judicial system. But continued delays in concluding the accord will increase the chances of a full pull out, according to U.S. officials.
In 2011, Baghdad’s refusal to grant similar immunity to U.S. troops scuttled talks with Washington, leading to a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
With Karzai unlikely to sign the agreement, NATO and the U.S. must now wait until April when Afghanistan holds its elections.
“It appears that President Karzai is not ready to sign a security agreement,” Rasmussen said. “We’re ready to engage with a new president after the presidential elections.”
Also on Wednesday, the defense ministers signaled that NATO will continue to work with Ukraine, which has been roiled by political upheaval and bloody clashes that ultimately led to the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor F. Yanukovych.
“Defence reform and military cooperation remain key priorities,” NATO ministers said in a prepared statement. “We commend the Ukrainian armed forces for not intervening in the political crisis. In a democracy, it is imperative that the armed forces do not intervene in the political process.”
Meanwhile, the conflict in Ukraine has heightened tensions between Russia and the west, sparking concerns of old Cold War political maneuvering. On Wednesday, Russia ordered large scale military exercises near its border with Ukraine.