WASHINGTON -- After warning of imminent deadlines for Afghanistan to back a security deal or face a future without Western military help, Washington has recently taken a lower-key approach more likely to bridge remaining differences in the coming months, U.S. officials and outside experts say.
"The efforts to be as quiet as possible are calculated because I think to the extent we talk publically it just makes it harder to get to a deal privately," a U.S. diplomat involved in the issue says privately. "There is not a completely unified view, other than doing this completely in public doesn't help, only makes it much harder to get to an agreement."
Washington pushed hard to get Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) by the end of 2013. Yet the Afghan leader has insisted he would sign the agreement only if the United States met his conditions, including an end to raids on Afghan homes and help with peace reconciliation.
President Barack Obama has announced that U.S. troops will end their combat mission in Afghanistan this year. The BSA allows for some forces to remain for counterterrorism and to train and advise Afghan forces. Without a deal, Washington warns, Afghanistan could be left without U.S. or NATO forces after 2014.
In the first half of December, as pressure on Kabul to back the deal intensified, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan James Dobbins said that as a result of uncertainty about the deal "the Afghan currency is slipping in value. Inflation is increasing. Capital is fleeing. Property values are dropping."
But of late, the United States has eased up on its public cajoling, even as it repeats the need for Afghanistan to approve the deal soon.
"The sentiment in Washington may be that by pushing it harder to have this agreement signed sooner, we may actually enhance whatever leverage that President Karzai is seeking," says Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghanistan's former ambassador to the United States.
"Therefore, there has been a cool-down a little bit," Jawad says. "It does not mean that they do not want the agreement to be signed but they are more open to possibilities to signing it the first part of this year or even some time after the election."
In November, Jawad attended the Afghan Loya Jirga grand assembly of about 3,000 tribal elders and other influential citizens that voiced its support for the BSA. U.S. officials had hoped that support would prompt Karzai to back the deal before the end of the year.
"While we never saw December 31 as a hard deadline, it was certainly our preference to complete the agreement in 2013," a Pentagon official tells RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, echoing the White House line.
Ali Jalali, a former Afghan interior minister who now teaches at the National Defense University in Washington, says he expects Karzai to approve the agreement before the April presidential elections. "Putting a deadline is not something that will help," he says. "Even if this BSA is signed by another president administration, technically the planning for the presence or the staying of 10,000, 8,000 troops is not going to be a very difficult issue, even if it is signed a few months later."
In a December cable leaked initially to "The Washington Post," U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham said he did not think Karzai would sign the agreement before the presidential election.
But RFE/RL's diplomatic source says the cable reflected thinking prior to the December holidays that has since changed somewhat.
"There is a little bit of a disagreement on what exactly is our deadline," the official says. "There are clear practical deadlines the military needs to what we are doing 'X' amount of time before we do it so they can make their preparations, that sort of thing, but I don't think that anyone suggests that that is January."
This month, White House spokesman Jay Carney referred to a ticking clock and said, "We're talking about weeks and not months." Personal sentiment may also color Obama's view of the issue. A new memoir by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has alleged that the U.S. president "can't stand Karzai."
Many in Washington see compelling reason to wait, if needed. They consider Afghanistan's stability important to American interests and note that all 11 Afghan presidential candidates have said they support the BSA. Karzai, who has ruled the country since 2001, is constitutionally barred from another term as president.
Karzai continues to voice support for the BSA in principal, while insisting that Washington back his demands. "We want a meaningful launch of the Afghan peace process by the U.S. with the help of Pakistan and an absolute end to all kinds of military operation on Afghan homes and in Afghan villages," Afghan presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi tells RFE/RL. "We believe that the U.S. can deliver on both of these conditions. The ball is on the U.S. side."
The U.S. diplomat who does not want to be named says Karzai has learned well how to spur Washington to action over the past dozen years. "The ship of state of the United States doesn't turn very quickly and unless he has pushed things to crisis with us -- and he has done it a number of times -- it is hard to get what he wants out of us," the official says. "This is another instance of that."
Some in Congress say, however, that it is time for Afghanistan to stand on its own. Representative Dana Rohrabacher (Republican, California), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats, advocates full U.S. withdrawal but agrees with supporters of a continued Western presence that more bloodshed will result absent U.S. military help.
"You can accurately predict that Afghans will kill Afghans," Rohrabacher says in an interview. "There is nothing that indicates to me that we have changed the historic forces that are at play in Afghanistan. And if that was our goal, that was a foolish goal to have."