The Obama administration is pressing the Afghan government to sign a new security pact or face the prospect of no U.S. troops in the country beyond 2014.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told VOA's Afghan Service Friday that failing to conclude the Bilateral Security Agreement this year with Afghan President Hamid Karzai is "not an option" the U.S. is considering.
"The bottom line is we need to conclude this agreement with a signature between our two governments as quickly as possible and certainly by the end of the year. Because if we don't, it makes it nearly impossible for the United States or our allies to plan for a presence post - 2014," said Psaki.
Psaki's comments come after a spokesman for President Karzai insisted Friday -- in a rebuff to the U.S. -- that the pact will be signed only after presidential elections scheduled for April.
Psaki said the Karzai announcement came as a surprise to the U.S. administration.
"This was a timeline that was agreed to by both sides. It's a plan that we've been working on both sides. We've been in touch on the ground. There have been, even as we look to broadly Afghan leadership, there have been many Afghan presidential candidates who have come out publicly in support of the BSA. So, there should be no secret and no surprise. We have made clear what our desire is in terms of the timeline, but that's been our committed timeline for some time now," she said.
A national assembly of tribal, community and elected leaders, known as a Loya Jirga, is meeting this week in Afghanistan to discuss the security pact.
About 2,500 local and regional leaders are participating in the Loya Jirga, which has broken into small groups to study the proposed agreement item by item.
Most are believed to favor the deal, which spells out terms under which international forces will remain in the country to assist the government in its war against Taliban insurgents.
But U.S. officials were stunned Thursday when Karzai suggested that the formal signing of the pact could be put off until the middle of next year, when he will be out of office.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest stressed the importance of having the agreement signed this year so that long-term planning can begin. He noted the United States has not yet made a final decision on whether to keep its troops in Afghanistan.
But Karzai spokesman Aimal Faizi said Friday the Afghan government is not impressed by U.S. deadlines. He repeated that the signing - if there is one - would take place after the April elections.
Karzai opened the assembly Thursday with an impassioned speech in support of the pact, saying it has the support of Afghanistan’s major allies and neighbors except Iran.
The deal is to take effect January 1, 2015, and will keep U.S. troops and civilian personnel in Afghanistan for at least another decade and possibly even longer.
During his speech, Karzai read out parts of a letter from U.S. President Barack Obama that promised the United States will continue to "respect the sanctity and dignity of Afghans in their homes" under the new security agreement.
Obama's letter, released by the Afghan government, also said many Americans have died or been seriously wounded in an effort to help and protect the Afghan people.
A draft text of the agreement said U.S. troops will only enter Afghan homes in exceptional cases -- a point of contention in nearly a year of negotiations on the agreement.
The Jirga is expected to spend several days debating the pact. The group must give its approval before the document goes to the Afghan parliament for a vote.