BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — Depicting a grim future for Afghanistan without US help, the top US military officer said Wednesday that Afghanistan’s refusal to sign a security agreement with the United States may make the fight more difficult this year, embolden the enemy, and prompt some Afghan security forces to cooperate with the Taliban to ‘‘hedge their bets.’’
Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spent the day with his commanders and troops in Afghanistan working to manage the after-effects of President Obama’s order Tuesday to begin actively planning for a total withdrawal of US troops by the end of the year. In back-to-back meetings, he urged them to focus on the considerable military work they have to do and not worry about next year.
Dempsey said the possible exit of all US troops was making Afghan military leaders anxious and eating away at their troops’ confidence. He said he spoke with some Afghan leaders after the Tuesday announcement, and they asked him to stay committed to an enduring US presence and told him they were doing all they could to get the agreement signed.
Frustrated with his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, Obama ordered the Pentagon to accelerate planning for a full US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of this year. But Obama is also holding out hope that Afghanistan’s next president, to be elected this spring, may sign the stalled security agreement, which could prevent the United States from having to take that step.
The administration seeks to leave up to 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after combat operations end on Dec. 31 to continue training Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism missions. But without an agreement that would give international forces legal standing to stay in Afghanistan, Obama has threatened to pull all troops out, and NATO forces would follow suit.
Obama spoke Tuesday with Karzai, the first direct conversation between the two presidents since June. Karzai has refused to sign the pact.
The impasse, Dempsey said, ‘‘is having an effect on the enemy and in some ways I think encourages them, and intelligence supports that.’’ He said the uncertainty of a continued US presence may encourage some Afghan security forces to reach out to the Taliban.
‘‘There are parts of the country where it seems to be, there will — with some likelihood . . . be some accommodations between the Afghan security forces and the Taliban,’’ Dempsey said. ‘‘I think a delay in the [agreement] might accelerate those kind of accommodations. I don’t think it will be widespread by the way, but we do have to be alert to that possibility.’’
He also said he expects that the Taliban will become more aggressive during the coming summer fighting season.
Noting that the Afghan forces were in the combat lead last year for the first time, he said they did well. ‘‘So I think the Taliban have always calculated that they need to up their game this year to confront what they now realize is a pretty credible opponent.’’
He added that while the United States can wait until after the spring elections before deciding whether to completely withdraw all forces, that decision will have to be made sometime in the summer.
Dempsey said they are nowhere near the point where the military couldn’t make that decision and successfully get all troops and equipment out by Dec. 31.
Obama’s announcement appeared aimed at marginalizing Karzai’s role in the high-stakes negotiations. The Afghan leader has irritated Washington with anti-American rhetoric and his decision this month to release 65 prisoners over the objections of US officials.
The White House insists it won’t keep any US troops in Afghanistan after December without a security agreement giving the military a legal basis for staying. While the White House did not publicly set a deadline for finalizing the agreement, officials said the size and scope of any US mission could shrink the longer Obama waits.
Also, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the 19,000 troops from other countries would also pull out of Afghanistan without a security agreement.