By David Alexander
KABUL (Reuters) - A NATO meeting in February could become a new deadline for a security pact between the United States and Afghanistan, whose president has been reluctant to sign the deal, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on visit to Kabul.
Hagel arrived in Afghanistan on Saturday to visit troops and senior Afghan officials but, unusually, did not plan to meet President Hamid Karzai, who has resisted signing the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) which would govern the U.S. military presence after most NATO forces leave by the end of next year.
Karzai has said he wants to wait until after April elections to conclude the deal, but Hagel said that could delay any signing until mid-2014, which he said was undesirable.
"I would say that one of the things that you might want to look at is the NATO defense ministers ministerial meeting in the end of February," he said, suggesting a possible deadline. "Some answers are going to be required at that NATO ministerial."
Hagel met the Afghan defense minister, the deputy interior minister and the commanding general of the Afghan National Army, but said the purpose of his trip was to greet troops during the holiday season and that he had never intended to see Karzai.
There was little he could add to the message conveyed by U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who met the Afghan leader in Kabul last month, he said.
"I don't think pressure coming from the United States, or more pressure, is going to be helpful in persuading President Karzai to sign a bilateral security agreement," Hagel said.
A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Karzai had shown no sign of giving ground.
"Two days ago, President Karzai repeated his position to senior U.S. officials that he is not yet ready to sign the BSA, and provided no timeline or practical steps for doing so," the official said.
A year-long negotiation over the text of the document was thought to have been concluded last month when an assembly of Afghan tribal elders and politicians, called a loya jirga, approved the pact. But Karzai surprised everyone during concluding remarks by saying he still had important demands.
They relate to a desire for the United States to kick-start a nascent peace process with the Taliban, and an end to raids on Afghan homes by U.S. forces pursuing militants.
Hagel follows several other senior U.S. officials who have visited Afghanistan without persuading Karzai to sign the deal. He is the first to visit with no plans to meet the president.
U.S. officials say further delay in clinching the agreement might force Washington to consider a "zero option" in which all U.S. forces would be withdrawn next year.
The NATO commander in Afghanistan, U.S. General Joseph Dunford, also said there was a need to sign the BSA soon.
"First and foremost I think it's about Afghan confidence. And what we have seen over the last couple of months, we've seen capital flight, we've seen some real estate prices go down. So inside of Afghanistan I think the BSA will provide a degree of certainty that I think will be very helpful," he said.
The United States has 47,000 troops in Afghanistan and has discussed plans with Kabul to leave about 8,000 there post-2014.
Despite Hagel's assertion he had never meant to meet Karzai, the president's spokesman Aimal Faizi said the United States had last week requested such a meeting on Sunday. Karzai had declined because he flies to Iran that day for a state visit.
"This morning we were again told that there might be a meeting around 6 (p.m.)," Faizi said. "Out of hospitality, we did prepare for a late evening meeting which finally did not take place. It is as simple as that, and not an issue."
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Ron Popeski and Alistair Lyon)