KABUL — The United States and Afghanistan have reached an impasse in their talks over the role that US forces will play here beyond next year, officials from both countries say, raising the distinct possibility of a total withdrawal — an outcome that the Pentagon’s top military commanders dismissed just months ago.
US officials say they are preparing to suspend negotiations absent a breakthrough in coming weeks, and would only resume them with President Hamid Karzai’s successor, who will be chosen in elections set for next April. But given the fragility of Afghanistan’s electoral system after 12 years of war, it is by no means certain when the next president would take office. Any delay could sharply reduce the amount of negotiating time before the end of 2014, when the US-led NATO combat mission here ends.
The impasse, after a year of talks, has increased the prospect of what the Americans call the zero option — complete withdrawal. That is precisely the outcome they hoped to avoid in Afghanistan, after having engaged in a similarly problematic withdrawal from Iraq two years ago.
Moreover, a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan could be far costlier than it was in Iraq. It would force European powers to pull their forces as well, risking a dangerous collapse in confidence among Afghans and giving a boost to the Taliban, which remains a potent threat.
It could also jeopardize vital aid commitments. Afghanistan is decades away from self-sufficiency — it currently covers only about 20 percent of its own bills, with the rest paid by the United States and its allies.
“If there’s no military here, it’s going to become a lesser priority,” said a senior European diplomat familiar with the US position.
Many contentious matters in the talks have been settled, like legal immunity for US troops, which is what scuttled the Iraq deal, Afghan and US officials said. Yet officials on both sides say two seemingly intractable issues remain.
The first is Afghanistan’s insistence that the United States guarantee its security, much like any other NATO ally, and the second is Karzai’s refusal to allow US forces to keep hunting for Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. He has proposed that the United States give its intelligence information to Afghan forces and let them do the hunting, said Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for the president.
US officials have rejected both Afghan proposals. The security pact is especially problematic, they say, because it could legally compel US forces to cross the border into Pakistan, resulting in an armed confrontation with an ally — and a nuclear-armed power.
“The deal is like 95 percent done,” said a US official in Washington, “and both sides are holding out.”
Faizi said Karzai was now taking a lead role in the talks. But, he cautioned, the Afghan leader could not agree to a deal that allowed US forces to raid Afghan villages and not at the same time go after militant havens in Pakistan.
“Killing people in homes and killing people in villages is bringing the war on terror to Afghans,” Faizi said in an interview. “This is not focusing on the root and support systems behind the terror.”
Only months ago, top US generals, including General Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, dismissed the possibility that negotiations could falter.
The Obama administration has been far more ambiguous. Over the summer White House officials began to seriously weigh the zero option.
The administration has instructed the lead US negotiator, Ambassador James B. Cunningham, to make one more push this month to bring Karzai around, officials said. It might consider letting the talks go into November, if necessary. But officials are loath to see the talks become an issue in the Afghan presidential campaign.
This week, the administration also considered sending Secretary of State John Kerry, who has a good relationship with Karzai, to personally intervene in the talks, US and Afghan officials said. But officials decided Kerry’s time was better spent on an Asian trip that President Obama canceled because of the government shutdown, according to another US official.