By Elise Labott
NATO warned it may be forced to withdraw all of its troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year if President Hamid Karzai doesn't sign a security agreement with the United States.
Reached last month, the pact lays out the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after 2014, when the NATO-led force of some 80,000 troops is scheduled to leave.
Although the agreement was endorsed by the Afghan council of tribal leaders, called the Loya Jirga, Karzai said he won't sign it until after elections in April.
Uncertainty over the agreement is causing mounting anxiety among diplomats here, where Afghanistan is dominating talks among NATO ministers, including Secretary of State John Kerry.
NATO wants the agreement with the United States signed before it finalizes its own accord with the Afghan government, as it is to be modeled after the one Afghanistan reached with the Obama administration.
Without it, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned the alliance would be unable to shape a future military presence.
"In that case, we don't have a proper legal framework in place and it will not be possible to deploy a 'train, advise, assist' mission to Afghanistan after 2014," he said, adding he hoped Karzai would follow the advice of the Loya Jirga and sign the agreement.
"It is my firm hope and intention, therefore, to continue our efforts to support Afghanistan, once these agreements are concluded," Rasmussen said.
Because the United States is expected to supply the bulk of forces for any post-2014 mission, any presence is unlikely without a signed agreement between Washington and Kabul.
Karzai has said he won't sign until certain conditions are met. These include promises from the United States of no more raids on Afghan homes and that Afghan prisoners will be released from the Guantanamo Bay detention center.
Washington has resisted such changes, saying Karzai's demands are new provisions added to a deal that was already reached.
National Security Adviser Susan Rice traveled to Kabul last week, where, according to senior U.S. officials, she warned Karzai the United States would begin pulling out troops in 2014 if he failed to sign the agreement by the end of the year.
"We consider that the Loya Jirga represents the will of the Afghan people, and it's time to move on with it," a senior State Department official said.