WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday appeared to give Afghan President Hamid Karzai extra time to sign a delayed bilateral security deal, saying the pact did not have to be concluded by January.
And while he said it must be signed as soon as possible, he raised the option for the first time that the deal governing the presence of US troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014 could even by inked by Karzai's successor, who will be chosen in April elections.
The United States wants the deal to ensure legal protection for any troops who stay behind in a training role after the international forces leave in late 2014. And Washington has warned without a pact, it may pull all its military out.
In an interview with ABC television, the top US diplomat stressed the bilateral security agreement needed to be signed as soon a possible.
"If American forces were not there, I think there would be serious challenges with respect to Afghanistan's security," Kerry said.
"But ... I believe that Hamid Karzai, either he or his successor will sign this," he said, before adding "I think he needs to sign this."
Asked whether Karzai had to sign the deal by January, as had been agreed between the two sides when they launched tough negotiations a year ago, Kerry replied "no."
He stressed, however, that there was a cut-off date, while refusing to go into specifics.
Washington has been infuriated by Karzai's sudden insistence after all the details of the deal were nailed down that the next Afghan president should sign in.
In a sign of the tensions, Kerry revealed that he was talking to the mercurial Afghan leader through Karzai's minister and not directly.
"We have an agreement that's been negotiated and he has said to me personally, and as recently as a day ago, reiterated through his minister that the language is fine. He's not going to change -- to seek a change in the language," Kerry said.