WASHINGTON - In a blunt warning to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, President Barack Obama threatened on Tuesday to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year if a crucial security pact isn't signed - and he ordered the Pentagon to accelerate planning for just that scenario.
At the same time, in a rare phone call with Karzai, Obama indicated he was willing to wait his mercurial counterpart out and sign a security agreement with a new Afghan president after April elections.
That would allow the U.S. to keep as many as 10,000 troops in the country.
The effort seemed aimed at marginalizing Karzai's role in the high-stakes negotiations over the future of the lengthy American-led war.
"We will leave open the possibility of concluding a (security agreement) with Afghanistan later this year," the White House said in a statement following the call.
"However, the longer we go without a (deal), the more challenging it will be to plan and execute any U.S. mission."
Obama's attempt to minimize Karzai's importance to U.S. decision-making underscores how fractured the relationship between the two leaders has become.
Tuesday's phone call was the first direct contact between Obama and Karzai since last June.
The Afghan leader has deeply irritated Washington with anti-American rhetoric, as well as with his decision this month to release 65 prisoners over the objections of U.S. officials.
The White House insists it won't keep any American troops in Afghanistan after December without a security agreement giving the military a legal basis for staying in the country.
While the White House did not publicly set a deadline for finalizing the agreement before that time, officials said that the size and scope of the any U.S. mission could shrink the longer the president waits to make such an announcement.