Hamid Karzai is playing a dangerous game.
By slow-walking the security pact, the Afghan president has frustrated the Obama administration to the point that U.S. officials are hinting they might go behind Karzai's back to ask another Afghan official to sign the accord by the end of the year.
But for all of Washington's anti-Karzai fury, some defense experts say that instead of sidestepping Karzai, the U.S. would be best served by actually consenting to his request: going forward with the pact after Karzai's successor is selected in April.
If the successor, and not Karzai, is the one to finally ink the deal, the U.S. and its allies can be sure Afghanistan's new leadership is on board with the agreement, said Paul Hamill, director of external affairs for the American Security Project.
"The worst of all worlds [would be] to get six months down the line and have a new president who does not want to implement the agreement," said Hamill, who formerly worked as a contractor within Karzai's presidential palace.
Allowing foreign powers to keep military bases and operate within the country is an extremely sensitive issue—one the Afghan people must fully buy into. By delaying the pact's signing until after the upcoming elections, the agreement will have the benefit of following a campaign season that had provided the appropriate venue for differences of opinion to emerge—even if those opinions come from candidates who are calling for the U.S. to pull out of completely, Hamill said.
"We need the Taliban, who would campaign against it, to be part of the electoral process—to put down their weapons and fight at the ballot box," Hamill said. "I fundamentally believe they would not win, and the Afghan people would choose to be part of the world community … but I think that decision process would be good for the long-term stability and strategic engagement with NATO and the U.S. so that anyone who wins the election can say, 'I campaigned for the agreement and won.' "
Additionally, many are hopeful that Karzai's successor will be a more amenable negotiating partner.
"Whoever he is … is also likely to be more reliable," Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said in a letter last week to President Obama. "And there would be greater confidence in his sticking with an agreement he has signed."
A delay would also give Karzai's successor an "immediate accomplishment" after taking office, added Brookings Institution senior fellow Michael O'Hanlon, "and some good graces in the eyes of his fellow Afghans, who are in favor of it."
And there's another surprising supporter of the plan to wait until after the election: Karzai himself.
Late last month—after a council of some 2,500 Afghan tribal elders endorsed the pact Karzai negotiated with the U.S., the Afghan leader made unexpected course change, surprising U.S. officials and some within his government by insisting the agreement wait until after his successor is elected in the April.
Karzai has also layered on new, controversial demands in exchange for his signature, including that the U.S. release Afghan prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay, but there is little-to-no-chance the U.S. will accommodate those demands in the final pact.
The draft agreement, which took more than a year of negotiations, sets the groundwork for cooperation between Washington and Kabul for the next decade, including a framework for the U.S. to continue funding the Afghan security forces. The U.S. and NATO are expected to leave up to 12,000 troops after the formal end of combat operations in 2014. The troops would serve in a limited operation primarily aimed at training, advising, and assisting local forces, as well as and launching counterterrorism operations—but only with the cooperation of local forces.
Waiting for Karzai's successor is not without drawbacks. It leaves the military less time to deal with the serious logistical hurdles of planning a follow-up mission to the decadelong Afghanistan war. Engineering a successful next chapter requires lead time to coordinate with allies and to keep the right infrastructure in the country. Alternatively, a draw-down operation on this scale would take some time to carry out safely.
There are also safety concerns. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said there's a "real possibility" the U.S. will pull all its troops from the country unless the pact is signed soon.
"The president can't commit American forces … no other country can, unless we are protected with an agreement," Hagel said on CBS's Face the Nation.
Those concerns are to be taken seriously, but it's unclear how much the lack of a signed pact changes the logistical hurdles facing the U.S. forces. With or without Karzai's signature, Washington in the coming months will need to plan for all contingencies, especially with the elections coming before the slated end of combat operations. NATO is already planning for all options—including potentially a zero option that leaves no troops after 2014, Levin said.
It would be good for the military to know a year in advance if the U.S. is staying in Afghanistan or not, "but I don't think it's essential," O'Hanlon said. "If we're talking about that last 10,000 troops and their bases, I think they can be pulled out in a few short months—probably two or three months. You have to do it in a way that's safe, so you don't leave yourself vulnerable as you're making your way to the airport…. We can develop that plan now."