A senior U.S. official on Tuesday suggested that the question is not if a bilateral security agreement with Afghanistan will be signed, it's when the deal will get done.
James Dobbins, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the pact— which dictates U.S. troop presence in the country after 2014—could still be signed this year, but it isn't guaranteed.
"I have no doubt the BSA ultimately will be concluded. I am concerned about the damage and the costs that a prolonged delay will create," he said, echoing concerns previously raised by other U.S. officials.
His testimony comes as the United States and its NATO allies are in the midst of an intense, public push to get Karzai to sign the agreement this year. The Afghan president has said that he wants to delay the signing of the pact until after the country's elections next year. He has also increased his demands, including that the United States stops raids on Afghan homes and help facilitate reconciliation with the Taliban. Dobbins characterized Karzai's current stance as "a bit of an overstretch" from what the United States could offer.
The Obama administration has suggested that without a bilateral security pact signed this year it will have to start planning for all possibilities — including the zero option— but Dobbins said that the United States is "nowhere near a decision that would involve our departing Afghanistan altogether."
"We don't need another ungoverned space. Another country like Somalia, like Yemen, like Syria, that has no ability to govern its territory," he said.
Nonmilitary aid to Afghanistan could technically still continue if the United States doesn't get a security pact, but Dobbins said he believes the U.S. political environment would make that all but impossible.
Senators from both parties voiced frustration with Karzai's decision to delay signing the agreement and questioned if Afghanistan could realistically support itself without aid from the United States and its allies.
Dobbins noted that there is "a real risk" that within 18 to 24 months of a complete U.S. withdrawal Afghanistan—whose budget is boosted considerably by foreign aid— could see a civil war or a resurgence in al-Qaida.
He stressed at several points that the Afghanistan people and most of the presidential candidates in the upcoming election want the United States and other countries to maintain a presence.
Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., agreed, saying that under Karzai the Afghan government is "really not speaking for its citizens." He added that Karzai's current stance on the agreement is "insulting" to the United States.
But Karzai did draw one slightly sympathetic voice in Sen. John McCain's criticism of the administration. "You're making a very, very serious mistake," the Arizona Republican said of the decision to not announce what troop levels would be under the security agreement. "...I understand…to some degree why Mr. Karzai is waffling around."