BRUSSELS — NATO troops in Afghanistan are bracing for a bloody winter ahead of the country’s presidential election, a senior U.S. military official said Tuesday, warning of an anticipated spike in high-profile attacks and political assassinations during a season that typically brings a lull in fighting.
Despite the ominous outlook for a period that will coincide with the U.S. military drawdown, NATO officials said Tuesday that they are “confident” that Afghan politicians and elders will sign off on a proposed deal to keep an American military force in the country after 2014.
That upbeat assessment stood in contrast to remarks by an Afghan government spokesman in Kabul, who told the Reuters news agency that some aspects of the agreement remain up for debate.
If a deal is inked shortly after an Afghan consultative body reviews its terms late next month, the United States and its partners may still have enough time to cobble together the political support and funding needed to keep a few thousand troops from the United States and allied nations in Afghanistan after the NATO mandate expires, the U.S. official said.
Western officials see the coming months as a turning point in the Afghanistan war, with a presidential election in April and lingering doubts about the international role in the aid-
dependent country. The Taliban is widely expected to make its presence felt as the number of American troops drops from 51,000 to 34,000 in February, the U.S. military official said.
“They’re going to try to disrupt the elections — we expect that — and, more importantly, disrupt the broader political process,” the official told reporters in Brussels, where Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was meeting with counterparts from allied nations. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity citing NATO protocol.
The Afghan security deal, known as the Bilateral Security Agreement, appeared to be on life support just a few weeks ago, when Afghan President Hamid Karzai spoke dismissively about NATO’s legacy in his country.
But Secretary of State John F. Kerry traveled to Kabul this month and announced that the sides had reached a breakthrough on outstanding issues.
The U.S. military official said Tuesday that he was “pretty confident there will be an agreement.” U.S. officials said the pact will be presented to a consultative body of influential Afghans, known as a loya jirga, late next month. If it signs off on the terms, the text will be presented to parliament for approval.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Tuesday that he, too, thought that an agreement would be reached, paving the way for a similar deal between the Afghan government and NATO.
“I am confident because the Afghans know that such agreements are a prerequisite for our deployment of trainers,” Rasmussen said.
Speaking to reporters en route to Brussels on Monday, Hagel said that getting support from the Afghan consultative body, which was convened by Karzai, was critical.
“President Karzai felt that it was important that the people of Afghanistan feel that they have a voice in this,” Hagel said.
Officials have not described what agreement Kerry reached on contentious issues. They include the scope of a post-2014 U.S. counterterrorism force and a demand by Afghanistan for a formal U.S. pledge to defend the country from external aggressors. Kerry said the only unresolved item involved whether American troops could be subject to Afghan law in certain circumstances.
Aimal Faizi, a Karzai spokesman, was quoted as saying that several issues remain unresolved.
“We are not in a hurry to sign this document,” he said in the Reuters interview, published Tuesday. “If it is not finalized, this could continue with the next government.”