By Adrian Croft
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO and Afghan officials started work on Saturday on drawing up a framework for the alliance to stay on after 2014 despite the fact that a separate pact with the United States, which contributes the bulk of the forces, has still not been signed.
President Hamid Karzai last month defied a consensus in Afghanistan's grand assembly in favor of the security agreement with the United States, and said he would not sign unless certain conditions were met, and even then, not until after April elections.
But with the clock ticking on the current 49-nation mission ending before 2015, NATO and U.S. officials have said they must have agreements in place very soon to govern what happens afterward or risk being forced to withdraw all of the 84,000 soldiers, 60,000 of whom are American.
The NATO-Afghan pact would have many of the same provisions as the U.S. one and would not be able to be finalized until after the U.S. agreement was signed.
Opening negotiations now is designed to make the best use of time, said a NATO official, who asked not to be named.
"Time is of the essence here," he said.
The talks were launched at a meeting in Kabul between NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, Maurits Jochems, and Afghan National Security Adviser Rangin Spanta.
NATO-led forces are handing over responsibility for security to Afghan forces as they wind down combat operations that started in December 2001, after U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and al Qaeda following the September 11 attacks on the United States.
The alliance plans to leave a training and advisory mission, expected to number 8,000 to 12,000 soldiers. In addition, the United States wants to be able to continue to conduct counter-terrorism operations there.
Getting a NATO-Afghan pact ready would allow it to be signed soon after the U.S.-Afghan accord, which would in turn start the process for allied governments to consider how many troops to send and in some cases seek parliamentary approval for the plan.
Karzai has shrugged off talk of a total pullout if he does not sign the agreement as brinkmanship and said he will not back down on his conditions, which are that the United States encourage the peace process with the Taliban and end U.S. raids on Afghan homes.
NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, said in Berlin this week that planning for the last rotation of combat soldiers would have to happen early next spring, around the time Afghanistan is holding its presidential election.
"If we were to go to a more drastic option in Afghanistan (pulling out completely), it takes a certain amount of time to get a force out of a nation ... And that timeline I don't think is well understood by President Karzai," he told reporters.
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)