A solider stands guard near a military aircraft in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Dec. 8. (Mark Wilson/AP)

The Obama administration is softening its demand that Afghanistan sign a security agreement by the end of the year or risk a withdrawal of all Americans troops, a threat that alarmed military officials and U.S. allies but did little to sway Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The administration could still end all U.S. military support by the end of 2014 if Karzai or his successor does not sign the security deal soon, officials insist. For now, however, Karzai’s refusal to sign it by Dec. 31 has forced U.S. officials to back off their stated deadline.

The agreement “should be signed by the end of this year in order for us to start going through the important planning process,” White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Wednesday.

“Now, if you’re asking me, does that mean that if they sign it on Jan. 10th that’s going to be a huge problem? Probably not,” Earnest said. “What will be a significant problem is if there is not quick action taken to get this signed.”

The bilateral security agreement, or BSA, was negotiated over the past year in anticipation of the planned withdrawal of U.S. and NATO combat forces at the end of 2014. The agreement provides a legal framework for continued U.S. military operations in Afghanistan on a much smaller scale. About 47,000 U.S. troops are there; the BSA would establish a training and counterterrorism force of roughly 8,000 to 10,000 in 2015 and beyond.

The United States refuses to station troops in the country without the legal rules, which stipulate that alleged crimes by American forces would be prosecuted in American courts.

The deal also serves as the backbone of other international pledges of military and economic aid for Afghanistan, much of which would dry up if the United States folded its tent.

Karzai, who supported the security deal, surprised U.S. officials by refusing to sign it. The administration had long said it wanted to conclude the deal by Dec. 31 to allow plenty of time for military and logistical planning next year, and to avoid having terms of a lingering U.S. military presence become a divisive issue in the Afghan presidential election in April.

A U.S. official involved in Afghanistan policy, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the administration has abstained from setting a new deadline, in part because of differing views on the best approach with Karzai.

At least some officials are said to favor holding firm to the deadline and allowing the United States to pull out — an option that holds obvious political appeal at a time when American support for the 12-year war in Afghanistan is ebbing. Others have urged patience, arguing that too much is at stake to walk away and that waiting out Karzai would ultimately strengthen the U.S. hand.

The differences of opinion have played out very publicly, which is unusual for a message-conscious White House that keeps tight
control over national security

National security adviser Susan E. Rice met with Karzai in Kabul late last month and warned that if the United States didn’t have a deal in hand by the end of the year, Washington would be forced to plan for a full troop withdrawal.

Senior military leaders soon chimed in to say that from an operational perspective, they could muddle through until the summer without knowing for sure whether there would be a post-2014 force. “We wouldn’t be at a level where it would begin to affect the options until probably early summer,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week.

Retired Marine Gen. John R. Allen, the former top commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, was direct in urging the administration not to allow Karzai alone to determine the fate of U.S. foreign policy.

“The United States can ride this one out. And given the enduring American strategic interests in this part of the world, as well as our huge sacrifice, that’s exactly what we should do,” Allen said in a New York Times op-ed co-written with Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. “In the end, this is about the American and the Afghan peoples, not about Hamid Karzai.”

By Wednesday, James F. Dobbins, the State Department’s top Afghanistan official, conceded that Dec. 31 was not a hard deadline.

“We haven’t at this point set a date beyond which we’re no longer prepared to wait,” Dobbins told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “We simply believe there’s a big cost in waiting, and it’s a cost [that’s] going to be paid for by the Afghan people.”

The agreement should be finalized “as soon as possible,” he added, to assure Afghans of continued international support and to maintain cohesion among the 70 nations contributing military and economic help to Afghanistan.

Dobbins was in Kabul last week to try to salvage a fast resolution to the issue, though he won no public concession from Karzai. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made his own trip to Afghanistan this week but did not meet with Karzai.

While there, Hagel told CBS News that a full withdrawal was a “very real possibility.” Days later, however, Dobbins said Washington was “nowhere close” to deciding to pull out all forces.

Londoño reported from Kabul. Scott Wilson contributed to this report.