Washington: The US would start planning for a complete withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan after 2014 if the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) is not signed by the end of this month, the Pentagon said on Monday.
At the same time the Pentagon indicated that it was flexible with the BSA signing date even as it wants it to be signed as soon as possible, reiterating that "zero option" is not its preferred choice.
The US currently has some 46,000 troops in Afghanistan, which is scheduled to drop down to 34,000 by February 2014. There are another 27,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan from NATO countries and other allies of the US.
The Pentagon insisted that an early signing of the BSA is essential for it to plan for a smooth post 2014 transition.
Once the BSA is signed the two countries need to negotiate and sign the "status of forces agreement" (SOFA), after which US President Barack Obama would determine the number of American troops in Afghanistan after 2014, Pentagon spokesman US Army Col Steve Warren told reporters during an off camera news conference.
"We want BSA to be signed as quickly as possible. Certainly by the end of the year. If it is not signed very quickly, we will be forced to begin planning for an Afghanistan that has no US presence after 2014," he said.
Warren said December 31 is not the deadline in the strictest term. "There is a series of events that have to happen once the BSA is signed," he said.
"Once the BSA is in place then we can begin discussions and finalisation of the SOFA agreement. Once the SOFA agreement is settled, we are then able to begin dealing with troop numbers. The longer we wait, each one of these in the chain of events is going to take time," he said in response to a question.
Warren clarified that troop numbers are not part of the SOFA agreement. The actual troop numbers would be the third and last part of this chain.
"We have not set the date yet when we need to begin planning for no troops in Afghanistan post 2014," he said.
"And December 31st is not a hard and fast date. We have said repeatedly that we would like to see the BSA sign immediately because there are so many things that has to happen after it. We have not set a hard and fast date," he said.