Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday disputed reports that he pushed back a deadline for Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign a vital security agreement with the United States.
"No, I didn't say that," Hagel barked at a Pentagon press conference, when asked to clarify remarks he made in Kabul over the weekend pertaining to the pact allowing U.S. troops to stay in the country beyond 2014.
Reporters traveling with the secretary on his recent trip to the Middle East interpreted remarks he made as an easing of the previously stated Dec. 31 deadline.
This is what he said on Saturday in Kabul:
"So there will be at some point here a cutoff point. And I'm not prepared to give a date on that. But I would say that one of the things you might want to look at is the NATO defense ministers' ministerial meeting at the end of February. And some answer's going to be required at that NATO ministerial."
He clarified his remarks at Thursday's briefing. "I wasn't setting a deadline for anything," he said. "I was just giving a fact of life that, when we all meet, our ISAF partners, the defense ministers meet at that NATO defense ministerial at the end of February, we're going to have to have some clarity, and not just for us, but our partners are going to expect that. OK?"
Last month, National Security Adviser Susan Rice said clearly that Karzai needed to sign the agreement by Dec. 31 or risk having no U.S. troop presence at all beyond 2014.
The desire by the administration is to keep a few thousand trainers and special operators in country. On Wednesday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said there was some flexibility, but not much. "If you're asking, 'Does that mean that if they sign it on January 10th, that's going to be a huge problem?' Probably not," Earnest said.
In a rather unusual move for traveling Cabinet members, Hagel did not meet with Karzai while in Kabul. Karzai has said he won't sign the Bilateral Security Agreement until after the April elections.